Elizabeth Edwards has been extraordinarily open about her battle with breast cancer. "When I was first diagnosed, I was going to beat this. I was going to be the champion of cancer," she told NEWSWEEK in a recent interview. "And I don't have that feeling now. The cancer will eventually kill me." Edwards discovered a lump in her breast in October 2004, two weeks before the presidential election (her husband, John, was the Democratic candidate for vice president). After undergoing chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission in June 2006, and she released her memoir, "Saving Graces" (Broadway), not long afterward. But the cancer re-emerged in March. Edwards went to the doctor because of a broken rib, and an X-ray revealed that the cancer had not only returned but had spread to her bones. When she announced her diagnosis at a press conference, Edwards said she planned to continue campaigning while undergoing cancer treatment. As she told NEWSWEEK, "I have an obligation to try to live as long as I can for my family. So if I campaign less or if I campaign with a wig, then I'll do those things."
Unfortunately, Edwards's case isn't rare. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among females--an estimated 178,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed this year. And while about 40,460 women will die from the disease this year, many do survive. The American Cancer Society estimates that there are about 2.5 million breast-cancer survivors in the United States. There is no single cause of breast cancer, but a strong body of research has found many factors that do affect a woman's risk. Age is the most significant; most breast-cancer patients are diagnosed at age 55 or older. Genetics also play a role: researchers estimate that 5 percent to 10 percent of breast-cancer cases are hereditary. One of the most established hereditary links is the mutation in the BRCA genes, discovered in the early 1990s. And new links to breast cancer are continually being investigated; just last month, researchers in California linked alcohol consumption to higher breast-cancer risk.
The best defense against breast cancer, doctors say, is yearly mammograms, although recommendations vary about when women should start. The American Cancer Society has long recommended that women begin with annual mammograms in their 40s, but new guidelines from the American College of Physicians, released in April, suggested that women could wait until their 50s. (Check this Her Body column to see which would be best for you.) New treatments for breast cancer are also showing strong potential, with the most promising developments in genetic profiling, a technique that could tailor treatment to the genetic signature of the tumor. Researchers have also begun to discover the benefits of exercise for breast-cancer patients, although the reasons behind the link are still largely unknown.