October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it’s a disease people need to be aware of. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaskan Native women, resulting in 40,820 deaths in 2006, the last year for which the CDC has statistics. In that same year there were 191,410 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed.

The third Friday in October is designated as National Mammography Day. On this day radiologists throughout America offer free or discounted mammograms. My intention was to have this article out in time for people to make use of this year’s National Mammography Day, but I forgot the month started on a Friday, making yesterday National Mammography Day. My apologies and next year I promise to get the article out in plenty of time for you to mark your calendars and make your plans to participate.

Breast cancer is a highly personal subject for me. I have fibrocystic breast disease, which has led to precautionary mammograms and biopsies since I was in my twenties, so, when my mother developed a small lump in her breast a few years ago, I wasn’t initially concerned. I knew most lumps are benign and I figured my mother’s was too. Little did I know how wrong I was. My mother had breast cancer. Fear ate through me at the “C” word. I didn’t know that with early diagnosis and treatment most people with breast cancer go on to live normal lives.

My mother was one of the lucky ones. She had discovered her cancer through a monthly breast self-examination just a few months after her last mammogram. The cancer had grown quickly, but it was still small when she caught it. At first the doctor couldn’t feel it. My mother then pointed out exactly where it was. The doctor ordered a mammogram and things proceeded quickly from that point onward.

My mother had a lumpectomy and they used targeted radiation to treat the tissue surrounding the area where the cancer had been removed. With targeted radiation they use a “bullet” filled with radioactive material for differing lengths of time to disperse radiation to the area. This is done to ensure all cancer cells are killed off.

My mother was lucky in so many ways. She found her cancer quickly. The doctor wasn’t dismissive just because what she felt was small or because her last mammogram had only been a few months before. She was able to be treated with a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy, although lumpectomies aren’t right for everyone so be sure you follow your oncologist’s advice. My mother was able to be treated with targeted radiation instead of traditional irradiation. Finally, my mother didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy, which, while it kills cancer cells also kills the cells normally involved in protecting the body from illness and infection sometimes leading to complications.

Today my mother has been cancer free for a few years. The cancer didn’t move to anyplace else in her body. The treatments her doctor chose were very successful. My mother still takes medications to reduce the chances of a recurrence, most notably an estrogen blocker as there is a link between estrogen and breast cancer. She still has to see the oncologist (cancer doctor) and she gets mammograms every six months now. There is always the chance of the cancer coming back. It is a fear we all live with, but I can’t imagine how intense that fear must be for my mother.

Breast cancer is the growth of malignant cells in the breast tissue. Here are some myths and facts about breast cancer according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.

Myth: All breast lumps are cancerous.

Fact: It is important to consult your doctor about any changes in breast tissue you may experience, but 8 out of 10 breast lumps are benign (non-cancerous.)

Myth: Men don’t get breast cancer.

Fact: Each year 1,700 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer. 450 men will die in that same year.

Myth: A mammogram will cause breast cancer to spread.

Fact: A mammogram is the best tool for early detection of breast cancer. Neither the mammogram itself, or the pressure it applies to the breast can cause breast cancer to spread.

Myth: Having a family history of breast cancer means you’ll get it.

Fact: While having a family history of breast cancer increases your risk of developing it, most women who develop breast cancer have no family history of it. However, if you have a grandmother, mother, sister or daughter who had breast cancer you should have regular mammograms beginning five years before their age of diagnosis or at 35, whichever is sooner.

Myth: Breast cancer is contagious.

Fact: Breast cancer is absolutely not contagious, although you should know your risk factors for breast cancer and follow an early detection plan.

Myth: Antiperspirants and deodorants cause breast cancer.

Fact: According to the National Cancer Institute there is no evidence conclusively linking either of these products to the development of breast cancer.

Myth: Knowing you have changes in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene can help you prevent breast cancer.

Fact: While knowing you have alterations in this gene and can be predisposed to breast cancer is important, only 5%-10% of actual patients have this mutation. Like family history this is a risk factor you simply can’t control. Regular self-examinations is a key to prevention and early detection, as are regular mammograms. In the meantime be aware that your chances of not having the disease are greater than 90%.

Breast cancer doesn’t always happen to the “other” woman or even always to women. Sometimes it happens to you, or someone you love. The thing is you have to be willing to be aware of breast cancer, not just during October, but all year long and take the measures needed to help ensure your continued well-being.

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