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Cancer Snapshots: Disease Focused and Other Snapshots

  • Posted: 12/02/2013

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A Snapshot of Breast Cancer

Incidence and Mortality

In the United States, breast cancer is the most common non-skin cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women. Each year, a small number of men also are diagnosed with and die from breast cancer. Although the overall rate of diagnosis of breast cancer increased in the 1990s, it began decreasing in 2000 and has remained steady in recent years. The overall breast cancer death rate has dropped steadily over the past 20 years. 

The incidence of breast cancer is highest in white women for most age groups, but African-American women have higher incidence rates before 40 years of age and higher breast cancer mortality rates than women of any other racial/ethnic group in the United States at every age. The gap in mortality between African-American and white women is wider now than it was in the early 1990s. 

Studies have identified numerous risk factors for breast cancer, including increasing age, personal history of certain benign breast diseases or breast cancer, early menstruation, late menopause, never pregnant or first pregnancy after 30, use of oral contraceptives, family history of breast cancer, presence of certain inherited genetic changes, history of radiation therapy to the chest, long-term use of combined hormone therapy, history of taking diethylstilbestrol (DES), increased breast density, alcohol use, and obesity after menopause. For women at high genetic risk due to a mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2, a preventive mastectomy can reduce risk up to 95 percent. Mammograms and clinical breast exams are commonly used to screen for breast cancer. Standard treatment options for breast cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy

It is estimated that approximately $16.5 billion1 is spent in the United States each year on female breast cancer treatment.

Line graphs showing U.S. Breast Cancer Incidence and mortality per 100,000 Women, by race and ethnicity, between 1990-2010.  In 2010, whites have the highest incidence followed by African Americans, Asians/Pacific Islanders, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Hispanics. In 2010, African Americans have the highest mortality, followed by whites, Hispanics, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Asians/Pacific Islanders.

Examples of NCI Activities Relevant to Breast Cancer

  • The Trial Assigning Individualized Options for Treatment (Rx), or TAILORx, is determining whether genes associated with risk of recurrence in women with early-stage breast cancer can be used to identify the most appropriate and effective treatments for these women.
  • The Integrative Cancer Biology Program combines experimental and clinical research with mathematical modeling to gain new insights into cancer biology, prevention, diagnostics, and treatments. Multiple centers are developing breast cancer computational models.
  • NCI and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences are jointly funding three Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers (BCERCs) to conduct transdisciplinary research on the effects of early environmental exposures on breast development and breast cancer risk.
  • The Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium (BCSC) is a research resource for investigators assessing breast cancer screening practices and their relation to stage at diagnosis, survival, and breast cancer mortality. BCSC's Risk Calculator was developed to help health professionals estimate a woman's risk of developing invasive breast cancer.
  • The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) researchers are systematically identifying the major genomic changes involved in more than 20 cancers using state-of-the art genomic analysis technologies. Recent findings suggest that there are genomic similarities between breast cancer and ovarian cancer, which may help to facilitate treatments for subtypes of both cancers. [PubMed Abstract]
  • Nine breast-cancer-specific Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPOREs) are moving results from the laboratory to the clinical setting. The SPOREs support research on the development of novel agents, technologies, and markers for better diagnosis, prognosis, screening, prevention, and treatment of breast cancer.

Selected Advances in Breast Cancer Research

Pie chart of NCI Breast Cancer Research Portfolio.  Percentage of total dollars by scientific area.  Fiscal year 2012.  Biology, 23%.  Etiology/causes of cancer, 15%.  Prevention, 5%.  Early detection, diagnosis, and prognosis, 15%.  Treatment, 22%.  Cancer control, survivorship, and outcomes research, 16%.  Scientific model systems, 4%.
  • Although high breast mammographic density is a strong risk factor for developing breast cancer, there was no relationship between high mammographic density and a patient's risk of death from breast cancer. Published August 2012. [PubMed Abstract]
  • In a phase III clinical trial, the combination of anastrozole and fulvestrant is more effective than anastrozole alone in patients with hormone receptor-positive metastatic breast cancer. Published August 2012. [PubMed Abstract]
  • Levels of the mesenchymal subtype of circulating tumor cells are associated with disease progression and can be used to monitor therapy response. Published February 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • A protein that links carbohydrate metabolism with modifications to chromatin structure may contribute to the development of aggressive forms of breast cancer. Published February 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • See this PubMed list of selected free full-text journal articles on NCI-supported research relevant to breast cancer. You can also search PubMed for additional scientific articles or to complete a search tutorial.

Trends in NCI Funding for Breast Cancer Research

The National Cancer Institute's (NCI) investment2 in breast cancer research increased from $572.6 million in fiscal year (FY) 2008 to $631.2 million in FY 2010 before decreasing to $602.7 million in FY 2012. In addition to this funding, NCI supported $112.4 million in breast cancer research in FY 2009 and FY 2010 using funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Bar graph of NCI Breast Cancer Research Investment in 2008-2012: Fiscal Year (FY) 2008, $572.6 million Breast Cancer Funding of $4.83 billion Total NCI Budget.  FY 2009, $599.5 million Breast Cancer Funding of $4.97 billion Total NCI Budget. FY 2010, $631.2 million Breast Cancer Funding of $5.10 billion Total NCI Budget.  FY 2011, $625.0 million Breast Cancer Funding of $5.06 billion Total NCI Budget.  FY 2012, $602.7 million Breast Cancer Funding of $5.07 billion Total NCI Budget.

Additional Resources for Breast Cancer


  • 1 Cancer Trends Progress Report, in 2010 dollars.
  • 2 The estimated NCI investment is based on funding associated with a broad range of peer-reviewed scientific activities. For additional information on research planning and budgeting at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), see About NIH.