Breast cancer is the devil as we know it, right? Prior to my diagnosis I was always advised to get my yearly mammogram, and check my breasts for possible lumps. I did just that, and it saved my life. Upon reading article after article and book after book on this high profile topic after my diagnosis, I realized there are many significant facts that are not commonly known about it.
Statistics can be quite perplexing. I was filled with bewilderment yet at the same time, I couldn’t believe the amount of information and data that I learned and collected. At times, the newly acquired information confounded matters even more and made me more confused. What I did learn is that every three minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer and an estimated 40,170 women in the United States are expected to die from breast cancer this year. Roughly 192,000 women will be diagnosed with it in 2009. According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer. I never thought I would be that one person in eight to be diagnosed. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that breast cancer is the sixth leading cause of death in American women annually, after heart disease (330,000 deaths), stroke (91,000), lung cancer (68,000), lower respiratory disease (63,000) and Alzheimer’s (47,000).
Statistics aside, there are still many things that people don’t know about breast cancer. Many women feel they are untouchable by cancer if no one in their family has been diagnosed with it. The truth is, only 5 to 10 percent of women have a strong hereditary chance of acquiring breast cancer. This means approximately 90% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease. In order to have a strong family history, one must have first degree relatives who have been diagnosed; mother, sister, or daughter who has had breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the risk does increase if a relative was diagnosed prior to menopause; therefore, having a grandmother who was diagnosed after age 70 does not indicate a solid genetic predisposition to the disease.
More important than genetics is the density of a woman’s breast. I was always told I had dense breasts, but never knew or understood that it was something that could have been dangerous. The American Cancer Society also states that the risk among women with dense breasts is four times greater than women with fatty breasts (the least dense). I’ve been advised by doctors that digital mammograms are much better able to detect questionable lumps with someone who has dense breasts, like myself than a traditional mammogram.
A healthy diet, maintaining body weight and exercise can help to minimize the risk of breast cancer in women. In addition, weight gain after menopause can be a contributing factor to breast cancer. Now I exercise regularly and try to eat well, so what happened to me? I think in my case, my cancer was “sporadic” meaning the cause was basically unknown. Although most people can take steps to lower their risk of this disease, it is important to know that no one has full control over whether they get breast cancer.
Since my diagnosis, many of my friends have wanted to take me out for a drink to celebrate each milestone that I have conquered while dealing with this disease. Many women underestimate the effect alcohol may have on breast cancer. I was advised by my doctors that consuming two or more drinks a day may increase my risk of developing breast cancer. I was never a heavy drinker, however; overall, I decided to limit my intake of alcohol to zero or possibly every once in awhile. In most cases I limit it to celebratory occasions, only.
Chemotherapy is a systemic tailored treatment that is used for many cancer patients. Many people are unclear as to why an oncologist would advise such an option since the surgeon already excised the tumor. Many people assume that chemotherapy is used to make the tumor go away. In fact, the reason I opted for chemotherapy is to prevent the cancer’s return. Chemotherapy, in my case was like insurance. It can kill off cells that may have escaped the initial cancer site. It reduces the risk that if the cancer cells are out there they will grow back.
Today, success stories are more common. The five-year survival rate for breast cancer when caught early is 98%, compared with 74% in 1982. There are 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. today, the country’s largest group of cancer survivors.
I am hoping with all of the fundraisers and scientific information out there that in 10 to 20 years each woman who is diagnosed with the disease will have an individualized treatment that will be effective and transformed. Hopefully in 20 years there will be a cure and every woman will wear diamonds instead of a wig.