Fighting Breast Cancer
If a woman were to be diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years ago, it was most likely that she wouldn’t survive. There wasn’t much knowledge of the subject then leaving doctors clueless in how to treat the matter. With all of the technology of today, the medical world has made so much progress in treating breast cancer and looking for a cure. Breast cancer is a potentially fatal disease that affects many lives. It can impact the lives of not only the women who have contracted the disease, but also their friends and families. There are many technological advancements made everyday in the fight to find a cure, however, by educating women on the subject, utilizing tools for early detection, and improving treatments, the survival rate has increased and many cases have even been prevented from happening.
"Cancer is not just one disease but rather a group of diseases. All forms of cancer causes cells in the body to change and grow out of control. Most types of cancer cells form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cells from the tumor can break away and travel to other parts of the body where they can continue to grow," (American Cancer Society, 1). When a woman gets breast cancer, it is a malignant tumor that has developed in the breast tissue. The cancer cells have the ability to spread to the underarm lymph nodes from which they are more likely to spread to other organs in the body. Benign tumors (non-cancerous), however, do not have the ability to spread and are not life threatening. There are many types of malignant tumors, which are determined by the severity of the cancer and how far it has spread. "The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2001 about 182,800 new cases of invasive breast cancer (Stages I-IV) will be diagnosed among women in the United States and about 41,200 deaths from the disease," (Reach to Recovery, 5).
There are many different risk factors believed to be involved in increasing a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer. Some factors such as age and gender cannot be changed, but others are related to the environment, which can be controlled by choice. Simply being a woman increases the risk because it is 100 times more common in women than in men. The risk of getting breast cancer also increases with age. About 77% of women diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 50. A family history of breast cancer can increase your chances of contracting the disease by about 2% to 7%. Recent studies have shown that about 10% of breast cancer cases result from a mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene. These genes normally help in preventing cancer cells that grow abnormally, however, over time these genes can mutate, increasing the risk of developing breast cancer. Women who start menstruating at an early age or who go through menopause at a later age have a slightly higher risk (American Cancer Society, 6-8).
Not all of the lifestyle related factors that are assumed to be linked to breast cancer are proven to increase the risk of developing breast cancer. Oral contraceptives such as birth control pills have been linked to breast cancer in some cases. Women who don’t have children or don’t have children until after the age of 30 have a slightly higher risk. Alcohol and smoking have an effect on a woman’s overall health, which can bring on a higher risk of breast cancer. Alcohol increases the risk about 1.5 times in women who have 2 to 5 drinks a day, where cigarettes don’t have a specific link to this disease. Obesity has also had some connection in developing breast cancer. Research shows that the risk increases in women who have been overweight as an adult but not in those who have been overweight since childhood. More recent studies have indicated that strenuous exercise at a young age may provide protection against breast cancer and even the smallest amount of exercise as an adult can reduce the risk of getting breast cancer. Other environmental factors such as antiperspirants and under wire bras have had no proof of a link to breast cancer (Reach to Recovery, 9-11).
The first steps to the prevention of breast cancer involve early detection and education. Carol Bonzi said, "I believe that early education is the key. If you start educating at a young age, then we might be able to prevent many deaths from occurring." Educating women about how to do self-breast exams and when to get mammograms is the best start in detecting lumps early. A self-breast exam can allow a woman to become familiar with her own body and enable her to be aware of any suspicious changes and lumps that may form. A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. They are used to look for breast disease in women who appear to have no breast problems. Tiny mineral deposits that form in the breast appear on the film as white spots. These changes should be monitored or even be examined further by a biopsy to determine whether it is malignant or benign. If a tumor is found to be cancerous, a pathologist will look at it under a microscope to determine how severe it is. A staging system is used which is a standardized way in which the doctors describe the extent to which the cancer has spread. The stages range from 0 to 4 depending on the size of the tumor and where it has spread (American Cancer Society, 4-6).
Once a tumor has been found to be malignant, the proper procedures and treatments are discussed. Depending on what stage a woman’s cancer is in, she may have a lumpectomy where they only surgically remove the lump or she may have a mastectomy, in which they remove the entire breast and the affected lymph nodes, if necessary. A woman will then need further treatment to help contain and fight the cancer. Radiation therapy can destroy the cancer cells that might be left behind in the breast, chest wall, or armpit after surgery. The treatments last 5 days a week for 6 to 8 weeks. The cancer can also be treated with chemotherapy, which is an anti-cancer drug injected intravenously or taken orally. It usually lasts about 3 to 6 months and has horrible side effects. It can cause nausea, loss of appetite, mouth sores, hair loss and changes in the menstrual cycle (Breast Cancer Treatment for Patients, 17-19). After going through these treatments, a woman’s change for survival can improve greatly. Carol Bonzi, a cancer survivor, said, "(The treatments) are improving everyday compared to 15 years ago when women didn’t even go through chemotherapy. I had a 20% chance of survival when I first discovered it, but after the treatments, it went up to 75%. Chemo takes a lot out of you, but if it can help, I don’t see anything wrong with it."
There are also others means of treatment that are promising experiments conducted by cancer researchers. Lori Barrera, another woman battling breast cancer said, "I was sent to an oncologist for my treatment and he only recommended chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a miserable thing to have to go through. It is awful and seems to decrease the quality of life. If anyone’s cancer were to recur, I would not recommend him or her to go though that again. The treatment only fully helps if your cancer hasn’t spread that far." In clinical trials, they look for the best way to give new treatment and how much can be given safely. There can be harmful side effects involved and the patient must know all the circumstances before treatment is started. Researchers determine how effective the treatment actually is and then might use it as a treatment for everyone.
After all treatment is finished, a woman might consider having breast reconstruction surgery or implant surgery. "These procedures do not treat the cancer. They are done to restore the appearance of the breast after mastectomy," (American Cancer Society, 4). There are many options when considering reconstruction and they should be discussed with a doctor. "Recommendations will be made for immediate reconstruction, delayed reconstruction (a second operation once recovery from the mastectomy is complete), or in some cases no reconstruction at all is recommended," (TransMed, 1). Reconstructive surgery is a very important option for most women. Losing an entire breast can be devastating to some and make them feel as if they aren’t even a woman any longer. Going through such a terrible thing can have a terrible effect on a woman’s emotions and being able to be reconstructed helps to fight the battle with a little more dignity. It is also important that a woman goes in for check-ups every 3 to 4 months after treatment is complete. After 5 years, follows-ups are only done once a year and by that time, researchers say that the woman has most likely beaten the cancer. "No one can predict how your cancer will respond to treatment. Statistics can paint an overall picture, but you may have special strengths such as a healthy immune system, a strong family support system, or a deep spiritual faith. All of these have an impact on how you cope with cancer," (American Cancer Society, 9).
Having breast cancer can have a major emotional effect on a woman. Going through all of the treatment and even the thought of losing their life is frightening. The technological advancements of the world today have helped to save many lives and even prevent many for contracting the disease. Education, along with early detection and newer and greatly improved treatments can help to end this horrible epidemic known as breast cancer.