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New treatments hold out hope for breast cancer patients


ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It's a nightmare that plagues millions of women -- a diagnosis of breast cancer.

The fear isn't misplaced. Breast cancer affects more women than any other cancer except skin cancer, and kills more than any cancer but lung cancer.

Still, doctors are making some strides in detecting and treating this devastating disease.

"The average size of a breast cancer would be the size of a golf ball back in the 60s," said Dr. LaMar McGinnis, senior medical adviser for the American Cancer Society. "Today the average size is grape size."

Early detection is one of the keys to surviving breast cancer.

Watch CNN USA Friday at 11a.m. EST to hear from women who have survived breast cancer -- including Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who was airlifted from the South Pole for treatment of the disease
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Mammography, an x-ray of the breast, is the most common tool for finding breast tumors. A radiologist examines the x-ray for irregularities.

"You're looking for asymmetry, that is, one side looking different from the other side," explained radiologist Dr. Jay Coffsky, Chief of Staff at DeKalb Medical Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

But by the time a cancerous tumor has been found in a mammogram, it's already been growing for three to five years.

New technology -- still not widely used and very expensive -- takes a digital picture of the breast. Doctors can then zoom in on one area or change the contrast to improve the image.

Other machines go a step farther, "reading" the picture and pointing out worrisome areas for radiologists to study more closely.

Targeting the tumor

Progress is also being made in treating breast cancer with less invasive strategies.

Currently, most women with breast cancer have to undergo some type of surgery, ranging from a lumpectomy, which removes the tumor and some surrounding tissue, to a mastectomy, in which the entire breast and some lymph nodes are removed. Most women with breast cancer also are treated with chemotherapy, radiation or hormone therapy.

Newer treatments seek to target the cancer more specifically -- killing the tumor but sparing surrounding tissue.

Some drugs under study now are designed to switch off the cancer molecules, in essence telling them not to grow. Others are anti-angiogenesis drugs that cut off the blood supply that allows a tumor to grow.

Another technique being researched involves beaming microwaves into the tumor to shrink it.

Preventing breast cancer in the first place is another avenue of research.

Although all women have some risk of developing breast cancer, women with a family history of the disease are considered at high risk. Scientists are studying drugs like tamoxifen and raloxifene to see if high-risk women might benefit from taking the medications while they're still healthy.

CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report.

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American Cancer Society Breast Cancer Resource Center
Breast Cancer Information from the National Cancer Institute
American Society of Clinical Oncologists
Department of Defense Breast Cancer Decision Guide
Breast Cancer Information from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation
The Digital Breast Clinic
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