A New Look at Breast Cancer

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In the United States alone, statistics show that nearly 200,000 women may be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and more than 40,000 might die from the disease.

This is why people like Dr. Larry Norton, physician-in-chief of breast cancer programs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, remain important in the fight against this disease. For more than 40 years, Norton has been working on understanding the mathematics of tumor growth or, more simply, how cancer changes and spreads based on numbers.

“Over the last five years or so, that has morphed into a deep understanding about cancer growth,” he said. “We used to think of it as cell division, and now we are thinking about them moving.”

Dr. Larry Norton

Dr. Larry Norton

Breast cancer is a complicated subject, but one many women have to think about. This is one reason Norton has spoken about it for the past 17 years at the 92nd Street Y. His next public talk at the cultural center is scheduled for Oct. 22.

“It’s going to touch on what the audience wants to know,” Norton said. “I will basically give an update on the biology of breast cancer and what’s happening with drug therapy.”

The first step in understanding breast cancer is to comprehend how the breast works. A woman’s breasts are really glands, and each breast is made of lobes, which are groups of milk glands called lobules. The lobules are placed around the ducts, which are thin tubes that carry the milk to the nipple. There are also lymph vessels in the breast that are used to pass lymph, the clear fluid that transports cells to help fight infections and other diseases. All together, these make up the glandular tissue of the breast.

Norton’s work focuses on the molecular identification of cancer-causing genes and the development of new drugs, which target cell growth. He also researches a newer type of therapy called “dosed density,” which constitutes scheduling drugs to minimize toxicity and maximize the killing of cancer cells.

Norton didn’t always know he wanted to be a doctor, let alone a world-famous cancer specialist. Born in The Bronx, he started out in the 1960s studying music and getting gigs as a working musician. Later, after a friend talked about his inspirational summer working at Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo, Norton decided to try the medical field. After getting his M.D. from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, he focused on internal medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Medicine became his true path, though he never lost his love for music.

“I think music and medicine have a lot in common,” he said. “The practice of medicine is about communication and listening carefully. The practical thing about music and medicine is that both require a great deal of time alone thinking.”

In a recent interview, Norton highlighted some of the basics women should know about breast cancer.

Should women fear breast cancer?
Norton: People fear the unknown, but the solution to fear is knowledge. My job is to demystify breast cancer so people can deal with it properly.

How common is breast cancer?
Extremely common. It’s essentially neck-to-neck with lung cancer. But with lung cancer, it’s caused by smoking. With breast cancer, we don’t really know what causes it. Though we do talk about prevention strategies. It is very common—10 to 12 percent of American women have the chance of getting breast cancer.

Does having breast cancer mean you have to lose your breast?
Most people can have breast conserving therapy, where the cancer is removed and the breast is treated with radiation. For the most part, you can’t tell that an operation has been done.

At what age is breast cancer most prevalent?

Breast cancer gets more common as you get older, though it can occur in very young people.

How often should a woman check for breast cancer?
Specific recommendations depend on the individual and family history. For sure we advocate starting annual mammograms at the age of 40, and it’s been shown to reduce breast cancer.

Some helpful websites:

www.healthcentral.com/breast-cancer/check-a-symptom.html

www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/293.cfm

www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/understanding-breast-changes

“Update on Breast Cancer,” with Dr. Larry Norton
Thursday, Oct. 22, 8:15 p.m., $18
92nd Street Y, Buttenwieser Hall, 1395 Lexington Ave., 212-415-5500

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