October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Today, about 1 of 8 women in the United States is unfortunately expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.
Here is some important information – presented in a question-and-answer format – to help you take a few important steps that can significantly improve your odds of enjoying a lifetime of good health.
Q: How do I prevent breast cancer?
A: The most powerful way to improve your odds against breast cancer is early detection. Breast cancer survival is strongly related to stage at diagnosis. Current data suggests the 5-year survival rate from Stage 0 breast cancer is over 90%, while 5-year survival at Stage 4 is 15%. While early detection isn’t the only factor, it is a major one.
Two important components of breast cancer detection are:
n Mammograms are the best tool to detect breast cancer early. Breast Tomosynthesis or 3D Mammograms is an advanced type of mammograms that offers better cancer detection, fewer call backs and greater peace of mind. The American Cancer Society, as well as other specialty groups concerned with early detection, recommend mammograms starting at age 40. Women at high risk, including those with dense breasts, benefit from additional, supplemental tests such as breast ultrasound and MRI.
n Physical exams are critical to support early detection. At each exam, your doctor should physically check for suspicious lumps, skin or nipple changes, or unusual nipple discharge that occurs without manipulation. Regular self-exams are also important. Women who practice breast self-awareness are more likely to notice and report changes earlier than those who do not — resulting in faster detection and treatment.
You can also reduce your risk by keeping a healthy weight, exercising regularly, avoiding exposure to chemicals that can cause cancer, breastfeed any children you may have, and limiting exposure to radiation from medical imaging testing.
Q: What is a mammogram and when should I start getting them?
A: Mammography uses a low-dose x-ray system designed specifically to see inside breast tissue. A mammogram is used to detect and evaluate changes in your breast tissue that could be indicators of conditions such as breast cancer. A technologist will perform the screening in a private mammography suite. She will position your breast on the detector of the mammography machine. A special device will then gently flatten your breast to spread the tissue and produce a more uniform thickness. You may feel a sensation of pressure or tightness as the breast is being flattened. Once the technologist takes two pictures of your breast in different positions, the procedure is repeated on the other breast. The entire procedure usually takes about 15 minutes.
Women should discuss with their doctor getting mammograms as they approach 40 as most women should start annual mammograms when they turn 40. Your doctor would be the best person to discuss what is best for you in regards to your current health and risk factors.
Q: I don’t feel any lumps or have any family history, do I still need a mammogram? How often should I get a mammogram, and do I get them the rest of my life?
A: First, yes. The purpose of the screening mammogram is to identify any problems early, thus making any needed treatment easier and more effective. Women should have annual screening mammograms starting at age 40 and continue every year as long as they are in good health.
Q: What types of treatments are there?
A: If you or a loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer, don’t panic. With today’s state-of-the art treatments, there’s an excellent chance of surviving the disease. Once diagnosed, be sure to quickly seek out treatment with a team of compassionate, knowledgeable caregivers that you trust.
There are several ways to treat breast cancer, depending on its type and stage. Some of the more common treatments include: surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy. It is not uncommon to get more than one type of treatment.
It is important to discuss your treatment options with your treatment team. When discussing these options, be sure and ask about the goal of a particular treatment and any possible side effects. Discussing this with your doctor will help you make the decision that best fits your needs. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when your doctor discusses treatment options with you. Some questions you might want to ask include:
n What are my treatment choices?
n What treatment do you recommend and why?
n What would the goal of the treatment be?
n How soon do I need to start treatment?
n How long will treatment last? What will it be like? Where will it be done?
n Will any of the treatment be done by other doctors?
n Should I change what I eat or make other lifestyle changes?
n How will treatment affect my daily activities?
n Will I be able to work during treatment?
n Will I lose my hair? If so, what can I do about it?
n Will I go through menopause as a result of the treatment? Will I be able to have children after treatment? Would I be able to breastfeed?
n What are the chances the cancer will come back after this treatment?
n What would we do if the treatment doesn’t work or if the cancer comes back?
Don’t be afraid to take notes and tell the doctors or nurses when you don’t understand what they’re saying.
Q: Is chemotherapy painful and what are the side effects?
A: Typically, the drugs given for chemotherapy drugs are given into a vein (IV), either as an injection over a few minutes or as an infusion over a longer period of time. Chemo is given in cycles. Which means, each period of treatment is followed by a rest period. This gives the body time to recover from the effects of the drugs. Most often, cycles last two or three weeks long with chemo beginning on the first day of each cycle. The schedule may vary depending on the drugs that are used. Depending on how well it is working and what side effects you have, treatment may be longer for advanced stages of breast cancer.
Research has shown that giving the cycles of certain chemo drugs closer together can lower the chance that the cancer will come back and improve survival for some women. For example, a drug that would normally be given every 3 weeks might be given every two weeks.
Some of the side effects may include hair loss and nail changes, mouth sores, loss of, or increase of, appetite, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, easy bruising or bleeding, diarrhea, and increased rate of infections. Side effects differ depending on the chemotherapy chosen for that type and stage of cancer. However, it is important to realize that side effects usually go away after treatment is finished. Tell your breast cancer team if you have any side effects, as there may be ways to lessen them.
Q: How long until I am considered cancer-free?
A: According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in American women. However, the good news is with today’s state-of-the art treatments, there’s an excellent chance of surviving the disease.
Statistics from the National Cancer Institute show five-year survival rate for non-metastatic breast cancer (breast cancer that has not spread beyond the breast) is 80%.
Breast cancer can recur even after five years, however during the first five years, the risk of recurrence is highest. It is important to realize that the more time passes, the lower the risk of recurrence becomes.
There are many different factors taken together that can affect the chance of surviving breast cancer. Throughout the treatment process, discuss with your doctor steps you can take along the way and at the conclusion of treatment to continue and increase your odds of beating cancer.
No one can predict the future. Your body is unique and how it will handle breast cancer is different from how someone else will handle treatment. Many women have beaten the odds, and continue to do so every day.
You just have to do the best you can, with the best team of doctors and nurses that you can assemble, together with your support network.
The good news is that more and more women are living longer than five years past breast cancer as a result of early detection, more effective breast cancer treatments, and better overall medical care.