Every person diagnosed with breast cancer begins an individual journey. Laura Taylor of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho (pop. 34,514), was just 27 when she began hers. Three doctors told her the lump in her breast was nothing. She was too young. She had no family history of breast cancer. A biopsy changed everything.
Taylor had part of one breast removed as well as nearby tissue that also was cancerous. Then she began a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatment to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
After three years of clean mammograms and the memory of treatment fading, Taylor says her life is returning to normal. “The trick is to not let cancer and its treatment consume you,” says Taylor, now 30. “I don’t think twice about looking at the incision—I call it my battle scar. I’m not a cancer patient. I’m a survivor and survivor is a powerful word.”
The good news
More than 2 million people in the United States are breast cancer survivors, according to the American Cancer Society, and the number is increasing. Dr. Cheryl Perkins of Calhoun City, Miss. (pop. 1,872), counts herself among them.
In fact, Perkins, who is approaching five years of living cancer-free, says with technological advances and more effective drugs and treatments, survival rates are improving.
“Treatment is more targeted for the individual patient, and we have options such as the lumpectomy instead of radical mastectomy,” which removes most of the breast tissue, says Perkins, senior clinical advisor with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, a breast cancer awareness organization based in Dallas.
“We also have sentinel node biopsy. It allows us to determine whether breast cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes,” she adds. If the lymph nodes are disease-free, less aggressive surgery is needed, and recovery is easier. The chances of the cancer coming back are reduced as well.
When Betty Odum was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985, treatment was limited. She had one breast removed, plus 25 lymph nodes, which later proved to be cancer-free. Even after 19 cancer-free years, she’s still concerned about a recurrence.
“Until you’ve had cancer, until you’ve walked in those shoes, you can’t say you know what it’s like,” says Odum, 59, of Schriever, La. (pop. 5,880). But the grandmother of eight doesn’t let her anxiety about the disease stand in the way of her annual mammogram. “I’ve known the fear of cancer, but everyone’s journey is different, and it’s not always a death sentence,” she adds.
Five to 10 percent of women are believed to be at risk of breast cancer because of genetic factors, meaning a female blood relative had the disease. But women who are genetically predisposed may be able to reduce their risk through lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise.
“My mother died of breast cancer at 36, when I was 6, and my grandmother when I was 14,” says Sharon Goodrich, 60, of Fairfax Station, Va. (pop. 21,498). “I’ve lived in the shadow of breast cancer since I was a child.”
Typically, women who are at genetic risk for breast cancer develop the disease before age 40. Goodrich never underwent genetic testing, because by the time it was available, she had passed that milestone. Still, she tries to maintain her health and reduce her risk by eating well and staying active. She also does frequent self-examinations and gets an annual mammogram.
“Some people think the disease is conquered, and some women think because they’ve had a mammogram, they’re good for another year. It’s just not that simple,” she says. “Everyone knows someone who has had breast cancer. Even so, 70 to 80 percent of women who have it have no known risk factors. It’s frightening.”
While breast cancer primarily affects women, some 1,300 men nationwide are diagnosed with it each year. Mark Goldstein of Randolph, N.J. (pop. 19,974), was 55 when he noticed his left nipple was inverted.
“In a typical male fashion, I ignored it,” he says. “I had bought into the conventional wisdom that breast cancer was a woman’s disease.”
Three months later, he awakened after surgery having had a partial mastectomy and some lymph nodes removed. Since then, Goldstein, now 70, has taken breast cancer head on. In 1990, he became the first man to run in the New York City Race for the Cure, an annual fundraiser for breast cancer research. To date, he’s run in 134 similar fund-raising events around the country and has a sponsorship from New Balance athletic shoes.
“It all comes down to attitude,” says Goldstein, who counsels other men who are diagnosed with, or under treatment for, breast cancer.
Like women who feel their femininity is compromised, men with the disease must grapple with the perception that it is an assault on their masculinity. “I ask them, ‘What’s really changed, except that you’ve had a disease that’s atypical in men?’”
Goldstein encourages men with the disease to step up to the challenge of survivorship. “When you’re in the companionship of survivors and witness their tenacity and their optimism, that will stay with you,” he says. “You can’t help but be changed for the better.”
Breast Cancer Risk factors & Symptoms
Breast cancer, like all cancers, develops when the body’s cells reproduce abnormally. Normally, cells grow and divide only when the body needs them, but sometimes cells keep dividing when they’re not needed. These extra cells can form a mass or tumor. Not all tumors are cancerous, but those that are make cells that are abnormal and reproduce rapidly, invading and damaging nearby tissues and organs.
The reasons that breast cells grow out of control remain murky, but certain factors seem to increase the risk. These include:
• Being over age 50 (77 percent of breast cancer patients are 50 or older).
• Having a family history of breast cancer among female blood relatives. (Five to 10 percent of female breast cancer patients have a blood relative with the disease).
• Having no children, or having a first child after age 30.
• Undergoing radiation therapy before age 30.
• Having dense breast tissue.
• Drinking alcohol.
Then there’s estrogen, a hormone produced by the body. Evidence suggests the longer a woman is exposed to the hormone—either produced naturally or taken as a drug—the more likely she is to develop breast cancer. Symptoms of breast cancer include:
• A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm.
• A change in the size or shape of the breast.
• Nipple discharge or tenderness, or the nipple pulled back into the breast.
• Ridges or pitting of the breast that looks similar to the skin of an orange.
• Skin on the breast or nipple area that looks or feels warm, swollen, red or scaly.
For information on the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, log on to www.komen.org.