Don’t Just Survive – Thrive!
by special guest writer @SabanSays
The American Cancer Society estimates that over 230,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, and almost 40,000 of those women will die from the disease. Those numbers mean that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Women, and even men, of all ages are at risk of getting breast cancer. However, there is a way to control your own fate and it is through early diagnosis.
The month of October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It helps raise public awareness of the disease and emphasize early diagnosis. It also celebrates those societies, like the National Breast Cancer Foundation, that conduct research and provide financial and emotional support to breast cancer patients, survivors and their families.
If detected early, the five-year survival rate is almost 85% for women who develop breast cancer. Yours chances of survival are increased by having an early detection plan which includes: clinical breast exams beginning at age 20 and mammograms beginning at age 40. One woman, Julia*, shared her family’s story of survivorship and how to thrive after cancer.
Breast cancer has affected four different women in Julia’s family. Her first experience with cancer began in 1998, when her aunt Brenda, on her mother’s side of the family, was diagnosed with uterine cancer and underwent a hysterectomy with radiation treatment. One year later, Brenda was diagnosed with breast cancer that was detected during her annual mammogram. This was followed by a lumpectomy and further radiation. Unfortunately, Brenda’s cancer recently returned in 2013. She elected to have a double mastectomy and a third round of radiation treatment. Despite so many cancer-related health issues, Brenda remains happy and positive in life. Julia describes her as a “rock.”
But the cancer in Julia’s family didn’t stop there. In 2004, Julia’s sister Claire* discovered an encapsulated malignant tumor at her first mammogram after her 40th birthday. Claire’s cancer was more aggressive and spread to one of her lymph nodes, so she underwent a mastectomy and extensive chemotherapy. Julia said Claire was very sick for several months, but God was looking out for her family and Claire survived. She later had an innovative procedure, known as a Tram flap, to form a new breast with tissue from her abdomen. Following an extensive recovery period, Claire is now happy, healthy and living a full life with her husband and two children.
Did you know that about 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary? Such high-risk cases result directly from gene defects or mutations inherited from a parent. Tests are now available to detect certain common mutations. In fact, breast cancer risk is higher among women whose close blood relatives have this disease. If you have even one first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer, it doubles your own risk.
Julia experienced this phenomenon first-hand. After Claire’s diagnosis in 2004, her mother Mona* also discovered an encapsulated tumor in her left breast in 2010. Like Aunt Brenda, Mona had a lumpectomy and wanted to continue with radiation, but her doctors suggested a new hormone test to determine the percentage risk of her cancer returning without chemotherapy. Mona had a 95% chance, so she started chemotherapy. It was very difficult and caused a terrible side effect – the palms of Mona’s hands and the soles of her feet “burned” from the inside out. After changing drugs and persevering through treatment, Mona is back to selling real estate and enjoying time with her grandchildren.
The troubling family-history of cancer continued. During Mona’s chemotherapy, Julia’s other aunt, Jackie*, was diagnosed with breast cancer at her annual mammogram. Shockingly, the cancer was in the same left breast, like Claire and Mona. Even with the early diagnosis, Jackie had an 85-90% chance that her cancer would return without chemotherapy. Thankfully, her body responded well to the treatment and she also survived and thrived.
Julia herself has not been diagnosed with breast cancer, but she is aware of her risk caused by her family history. Julia has dense breast tissue, a common problem, so she must have an MRI every six months instead of a typical mammogram. At one recent appointment, Julia’s doctors noticed a small spot in her breast and did a biopsy. Waiting for the results was torture, according to Julia. But God was once again watching over her family, because it turned out to be benign. Julia suggests “do not be afraid [of cancer], but stay strong.” If you try to deny the possibility of a diagnosis, then you cannot be as strong. Julia admits that she is considering a preventive double mastectomy, but will await her most recent MRI results. She acknowledges that dealing with breast cancer is never easy, but recommends “keep a smile on your face and . . . have [supportive] people around you.”
All of the women in Julia’s family would never have discovered their breast cancer if they had not completed their annual mammograms. No one felt a lump above the breast tissue. No one had abnormal symptoms. There was nothing to alert them, which is why it is so important for every woman to go for an annual exam and mammogram. Julia encourages women to “be proactive, [and] do it for yourself.” Early diagnosis can be the difference between life and death; the difference between a statistic and a thriving survivor.
* All names have been changed to protect the identities of the brave women involved
This is why we have to do something. Please consider helping us raise money for awareness and prevention this month.