Friday, October 19, 2012

Breast Cancer Awareness - Knowing It Exists is Not Enough!

It's that time of year again when we see pink ribbons everywhere and there is much talk about "breast cancer awareness." Retailers are pushing all kinds of pink products -- everything from t-shirts and bracelets to vacuum cleaners. There are lots of fundraiser events going on: walks, shows, banquets, and sales. Even professional sports teams get in the spirit by wearing pink.

Is it just me, or has breast cancer awareness become more prevalent recently? I'd like to think it has. 5 years ago when I was first diagnosed, it was "Breast Cancer Awareness Month" just a few weeks later, and it seemed like the whole world was suddenly cheering me on in my fight. Every year since then when October rolls around it does boost my spirits just to see those pink ribbons and know that I'm not alone in this battle.

But what is it exactly that we are hoping to make people aware of? At the end of the day, what should we take away from all this? I can only share with you my perspective as a breast cancer warrior.

I would like people to be aware of the statistics, but not just numbers -- the real life facts. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. This fact starts to hit home when you begin hearing of all the folks you know being diagnosed -- your mother, your sister, your friend, your co-worker, your hairdresser, your neighbor, and on and on. It happens way too often. Over 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the U.S., and over 40,000 die from it each year. Aside from skin cancer, it is the most common cancer among women and aside from lung cancer it is the most common cause of cancer death among women.

I would like women to be aware of the importance of early detection. A woman's prognosis is much better when the cancer is discovered before it has grown large or spread to other areas. Most doctors feel that thousands of lives are saved each year due to early detection tests. The American Cancer Society states that women may want to perform regular self-exams beginning in their 20's, recommends periodic clinical exams (about every 3 years) beginning in their 20's and 30's, and annual mammograms beginning in their 40's. Women with a higher lifetime risk (20% or higher) should have an annual MRI and mammogram.

I would like women to be aware of what their own personal risk factors are and how those risks impact them. Risk factors include age, race, breast density, family history, birth control, hormone therapy, etc. The American Cancer Society has a very informative article on early detection, risk factors, and symptoms which you can read about here: American Cancer Society 

Another organization with a great website is National Breast Cancer Foundation which has lots of information, including an app for a personalized early detection plan and an informative section called "Beyond the Shock" with questions, answers, and real stories.

One huge misconception many women have is that they are "safe" if they have no family history of breast cancer. While it is true that a woman's risk factor increases if an immediate family member had breast cancer, 85% of women who are diagnosed had NO family history!

I would like women to be aware of various testing -- what is available and what are the pros and cons of each. Be aware that mammograms are not perfect -- they have limitations. Even though they do miss some cancers, they are still an important and valuable tool in detecting cancer. While some women have expressed concern about the amount of radiation a woman is exposed to in a mammogram, the American Cancer Society states that it is roughly equal to the amount of radiation one is exposed to on a commercial jet flying from New York to California and that it does not significantly increase the risk for breast cancer.

I would also like everyone to be aware of the importance of the development and availability of new and better treatment. The "race for the cure" before another life is lost. Every time I hear a news broadcast about a hopeful new discovery, I follow the story to the footnote that details how many months or years it will be going through various trials followed by the red tape of FDA approvals, and I am discouraged to think that it probably won't be in time to help me, but I do hope it will eventually save others' lives. My doctor has often told me that the most hopeful new drug for me is T-DM1 and has been tied up by political red tape in Washington, D.C. for several years now. It certainly is disheartening when I consider all the lives that are being lost in the meantime.

I would like women to take breast cancer seriously, because I didn't. It's not just your breasts you may lose, it could be your life, so be aware and be vigilant in regular and thorough exams and tests.

And I would like people to be aware that after this month passes, all the pink sales displays disappear, and all the hoopla dies down, we breast cancer warriors will still be silently fighting on. Please don't support us for only one month out of the year.

A few days ago I ran into a teenage girl at the store who had a pink breast cancer ribbon painted on her cheek. I wondered if it had special significance to her and I asked her about it. As it turned out, her aunt was a survivor. I pray this disease is wiped out long before this young girl has to face it herself one day.

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