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The Reality of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a disease that makes women fearful, more than any other disease, including other types of cancer. The fear is not just for the fear of death, because most diseases present that possibility. There are many negative connotations associated with breast cancer that are as much cultural based as they are disease related.

These negative connotations include disfigurement, loss of sexual attractiveness, disease recurrence with greater intensity, and fear of what other people will think when they learn of the cancer. These reasons along with many others form the basis of fear women experience when they hear about breast cancer. The fears stretch beyond the physical and extend into the personal, as they can erode self-esteem and create worry about how breast cancer can impact their personal relationships with a partner or family members.

The good news is that intensive and ongoing breast cancer research has led to earlier diagnosis, more effective treatments, improved breast reconstruction methods and much more. Most importantly, the medical research since the 1970s has lowered the breast cancer mortality rates and has also improved the quality of life for breast cancer survivors.

Not First on the List

The estimates for 2010 (latest figures) indicated that 207,090 women would be diagnosed with breast cancer.1 Though this sounds like a large number, breast cancer is not the leading cause of death among women. The leading cause is heart disease and then stroke. In fact, breast cancer is fifth on the list of leading causes of deaths among women.2

Knowing the statistics is not enough to alleviate the fear. The best way to manage fear is to arm yourself with knowledge.  You need to learn about:

  • Risk factors
  • Identifying early signs and symptoms
  • Treatment options including radiation, surgery and systemic therapies
  • Oncoplastic or reconstructive surgery
  • Post treatment health management

An important source of information is your doctor. To insure that you understand the diagnosis and treatment plan, you must develop a patient-doctor relationship that includes discussion and time to ask as many questions as necessary. Too many people simply accept what the doctor says without question, which leaves a feeling of unease or discontent. A quality doctor will explain the medical basis for recommendations and encourage questions and discourse. You should become an active member of your medical team – one with a voice. This not only will help you stay informed about treatment progress, but it will also impart a feeling of control over your body. This is important when the breast cancer diagnosis and the doctor and hospital visits that follow, leave you feeling powerless.

The Whole Body

There are many emotional and psychological factors that need to be considered as well. Breast cancer may occur in the breast, but it affects the whole body. You cannot simply deal with the disease and not manage how it impacts your self-esteem, relationships, and lifestyle.

Of course, if you are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer based on genetics, habits or dietary factors then it is critical that you do everything possible to decrease your chances of developing breast cancer. Research has lead to the discovery of genetic markers that tell if a person is predisposed to breast cancer. It should be noted that anyone can get breast cancer including men, and in rare instances, young girls.

Complexity of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a complex subject. For example, there are different types of breast cancer including invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC), invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), and others. There are also many factors contributing to breast cancer including genetic factors, hormonal factors, obesity, environmental factors and aging.3  Complicating the issue even more, are racial and ethnic disparities that are not completely understood at this point.

Despite these complexities, there are many discoveries being made by breast cancer researchers, that are leading to a much better understanding of the “who, what, why and how of breast cancer.”  Understanding what causes breast cancer has made it possible for women to change behaviors, nutrition and other lifestyle factors to reduce risk factors as much as possible.

Each person must make it their own responsibility, to take the steps necessary to reduce their chance of developing breast cancer. If you or someone you love is diagnosed with breast cancer, understand that medical research has lead to more effective treatments that have allowed people to have a high quality of life during and after the diagnosis. Until a cure for breast cancer is found, or until researchers find a way to prevent its occurrence, early detection is key for survival. Self breast exams, clinical breast exams by a doctor or trained medical professional and periodic mammograms all help to detect early breast cancer.

Breast cancer is arguably one of the most well-publicized of all types of cancer. Increased awareness has helped to save thousands of lives that may have been lost due to breast cancer. After surviving cancer, it is important to monitor your body for signs of recurrence and to live a lifestyle that continues to lower your risk of developing cancer. One thing you should not do is live in fear. Instead, give back to those who have fought or are fighting the same battle, by volunteering with a cancer support group.

Prevention of breast cancer should always be the first. However, if you are diagnosed with this disease, statistically there is an excellent chance that your disease can be treated and potentially cured. You are taking the first step – broadening your knowledge. Understanding your disease will give you the power to overcome it and live life to the fullest throughout the journey.

References

1 Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results. (November 2010) Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute.

2 Breast Cancer. (2011, October 3). Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control: www.cdc.gov/Features/breastcancerawareness/

3 Mayo Clinic Guide to Women’s Cancers. (2005). New York: Mayo Clinic Health Information.

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.