A prognosis is the medical team's best guess in how cancer will affect a patient. There are many prognostic factors associated with breast cancer: staging, tumor size and location, grade, whether disease is systemic (has metastasized, or traveled to other parts of the body), recurrence of the disease, and age of patient.
Stage is the most important, as it takes into consideration size, local involvement, lymph node status and whether metastatic disease is present. The higher the stage at diagnosis, the worse the prognosis. The stage is raised by the invasiveness of disease to lymph nodes, chest wall, skin or beyond, and the aggressiveness of the cancer cells. The stage is lowered by the presence of cancer-free zones and close-to-normal cell behaviour (grading). Size is not a factor in staging unless the cancer is invasive. Ductal Carcinoma in situ throughout the entire breast is stage zero.
Grading is based on how biopsied, cultured cells behave. The closer to normal cancer cells are, the slower their growth and the better the prognosis. If cells are not well differentiated, they will appear immature, will divide more rapidly, and will tend to spread. Well differentiated is given a grade of 1, moderate is grade 2, while poor or undifferentiated is given a higher grade of 3 or 4 (depending upon the scale used).
Younger women tend to have a poorer prognosis than post-menopausal women due to several factors. Their breasts are active with their cycles, they may be nursing infants, and may be unaware of changes in their breasts. Therefore, younger women are usually at a more advanced stage when diagnosed. There may also be biologic factors contributing to a higher risk of disease recurrence for younger women with breast cancer.
The presence of estrogen and progesterone receptors in the cancer cell, while not prognostic, is important in guiding treatment. Those who do not test positive for these specific receptors will not respond to hormone therapy.
Likewise, HER2/neu status directs the course of treatment. Patients whose cancer cells are positive for HER2/neu have more aggressive disease and may be treated with trastuzumab, a monoclonal antibody that targets this protein.
Elevated CA15-3, in conjunction with alkaline phosphatase, was shown to increase chances of early recurrence in breast cancer.
The emotional impact of cancer diagnosis, symptoms, treatment, and related issues can be severe. Most larger hospitals are associated with cancer support groups which provide a supportive environment to help patients cope and gain perspective from cancer survivors. Online cancer support groups are also very beneficial to cancer patients, especially in dealing with uncertainty and body-image problems inherent in cancer treatment.
Not all breast cancer patients experience their illness in the same manner. Factors such as age can have a significant impact on the way a patient copes with a breast cancer diagnosis. Premenopausal women with estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer must confront the issues of early menopause induced by many of the chemotherapy regimens used to treat their breast cancer, especially those that use hormones to counteract ovarian function.
On the other hand, a recent study conducted by researchers at the College of Public Health of the University of Georgia showed that older women may face a more difficult recovery from breast cancer than their younger counterparts. As the incidence of breast cancer in women over 50 rises and survival rates increase, breast cancer is increasingly becoming a geriatric issue that warrants both further research and the expansion of specialized cancer support services tailored for specific age groups.