“You have breast cancer.”
To a woman, these are four of the scariest words in the English language.
Breast cancer is a difficult, even frightening topic for women to think about, because for many of us, it is all too easy to imagine someday hearing those dreaded words. Many of us know a close friend or family member who has battled breast cancer, with a wide range of results. The rest of us simply have heard the stories, and know of it, lurking there in the shadows; omnipotent and invisible, the very thought of it striking fear in the hearts of women all across the world.
Based off information from Tracey Cornforth’s article on About.com, “Will I Get Breast Cancer?”, over the course of her life span, an average woman has a potential one in seven risk of receiving the potentially devastating call from her doctor that she has breast cancer. These ‘odds’ vary quite a bit globally, due to individual patient circumstances such as genetics, lifestyle, ethnicity, access to medical care and other risk factors.
For women approaching thirty years of age, having odds of only one in 250 of being diagnosed with breast cancer may not sound particularly terrifying. Scary, sure; but still sort of… distant.
By the time we reach our 50’s, however, our risk has increased significantly to translate into almost one in every 30 of us getting a breast cancer diagnosis. So what can we do? First, we need to understand the disease, confront the realities involved and learn to take steps to protect ourselves from the ignorance, denial and disease that could kill us.
According to the Center for Disease Control’s recent statistics update, among American women, breast cancer ranks number six as the leading cause of death, and second among all cancer-related deaths.
Realization: Breast cancer torments, disfigures and even kills its victims.
My first experience with breast cancer came when I was eight years old, though I didn’t know it at the time. For years, I had gone to California in the summertime to pass the months at my grandparent’s house in the suburbs of Los Angeles. For years, I had watched my grandmother dress, get ready to shower and don a swimsuit for a beach trip. For years, I thought nothing of it. Around the time I was eight, however, I started to hone in on something previously of little interest to me: my grandmother had only one breast.
This was not something we talked about, and there was some small amount of effort made to downplay the issue. I wasn’t even sure of what I was seeing at first. Grandma would dress mostly with her back to me, however, there were plenty of times where my view was unobstructed and it was plain as the light of day. There was only one breast. I then began to notice all of her bras and swimsuits were specially-made, with one foam-filled cup to compensate for the missing tissue. That was the end of that. I loved her no more, loved her no less, and went on about my business, something this subject obviously was not. At least, not yet.
In later years, I learned from my grandparents and my father the true reason behind the mystery: my grandmother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and the only course of option for her was to have a mastectomy. At the time of hr diagnosis, I believe it was the mid-1970’s, reconstructive surgery was nowhere near as common as it currently is following this procedure. I’m not sure if reconstruction wasn’t an option for my grandmother, or if she actively chose to remain how she was, and simply rejoice in life. My grandmother is not one to cry in her milk, so to speak.
The topic is still not one widely discussed in my family, though there are potential ramifications down the line. Each time I move or change doctors, I will need to be sure my new physician is aware of my family history. My grandmother was diagnosed before she was 60, and that factor could heighten my risk. My grandfather, her husband, has various health issues, as well, including recurrent skin cancer. For these reasons, I will need to be vigilant about the health of my entire body, but with special focus on my breasts and skin. Family history is so important in preparing for your own future health, and that of your children.
Research: Steps to maintaining good health.
Find out your specific family history by speaking with your relatives. It may be difficult to bring up the reason Aunt Paula died, but what you learn by asking about her could save your life. Likewise, know what to look for within your own body to determine if there is cause for concern, or at least a thorough exam by your physician. Cancer is a mutation of cells inside your body: they may not cause you pain, and they aren’t going to pop out of your nipple and wave hello! You may not experience any symptoms, and could still be at risk, which is why my family physician says all women over 40 should get mammograms.
According to the Mayo Clinic’s web site, symptoms of breast cancer include any fluid leaking from the nipple that appears bloody. Any fluid coming from your nipples that cannot be associated with milk production in lactation should promptly be addressed with your OB/GYN or family physician. Additionally, flaking or peeling (similar to sunburn reaction) should be seen as a signal to be examined as soon as possible.
Perform self breast exams monthly to help you discover any changes in the size or shape, and to feel for any lumps or fibrous material that you might not have noticed before. To learn how to perform a proper self-exam, visit Cancer.org for a thorough guide to this life-saving step you can take for at home. Changes you note in your breasts and unexplained pain or inflammation of any type are warning signs, and should be checked out with a doctor immediately upon discovery.
With breast cancer, the odds are truly in your favor if you catch the disease before it spreads. Prevention plays a role, as well. Though some cases may be completely unavoidable, due to genetics and predispositions, some lifestyle choices can help determine our risk. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and natural grains can help the body maintain a balanced immune system, potentially helping to reduce the risk of many cancers.
Avoiding carcinogens and free radicals (essentially, toxic, potentially cancer-causing molecules) found in over-processed foods, fatty foods and foods loaded with sugars can be beneficial, and is symbiotic with an overall good attitude towards health.
For your best overall health, especially that of your breasts, don’t smoke! And as long as you are a normal, healthy adult, moderate exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body as a whole. A study recently published by Penn State attests to this finding, citing specifically the potential for reducing risk of breast cancer. See the highly anticipated findings of this study here.
Remember: When in doubt, check it out.
See your OB/GYN for regular pap smears and breast exams, and check yourself at home. If something feels ‘off’, schedule an appointment to be seen. Feeling uncomfortable? Ask a trusted girlfriend to join you. for accountability, make a pact with all your girlfriends to do self-exams, and call each other on a certain day of the month to ensure your friend remembered!
When it comes to saving yourself from this deadly disease, the power may literally be in your hands. Too many women lament “If only I had taken that little lump seriously…” as they schedule their mastectomy, or worse. It is never a woman’s fault when the cancer progresses beyond any desired outcome; it is simply a testament to early detection.
Take every lump seriously, every time. Don’t ever allow fear of a diagnosis or procedure to take control over your health. You are braver than you know, and you need to be your own best advocate!