October is the month for pink ribbons, the symbol of breast cancer awareness. Pink is the color because 99% of all breast cancer cases occur in women.
With breast cancer, vigilance is a MUST!
- Monthly self-exams (recommended to begin at age 20)
- Yearly mammograms for women age 50-54, and every 2 years for women ages 55 and older (unless high risk factors exist)
- If there is a family history, clinical breast exams should begin 10 years before the age of the youngest family member with breast cancer (but no earlier than 25, and no later than 40).
Although the median age at diagnosis is 62, based on my personal experience, I feel compelled to emphasize that younger women can also develop the disease, even before the recommended age for mammograms. Hence the importance of self-breast exams as an adjunct screening method (an estimated 40% of breast cancers are detected by self-breast exam).
The happy news for me, is that I’m still here, more than 20 years later, despite having regional spread. The pace of change in diagnosis and treatment, even since my diagnosis, has been really phenomenal. I’ve watched HER2 testing become routine, axillary dissections give way to sentinel node biopsies, chemotherapeutic agents change, and the incorporation of immunotherapies. I am thankful beyond measure that treatments are more targeted today, and more effective.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Breast cancer survival rates have increased, and the number of deaths associated with this disease is steadily declining, largely due to factors such as earlier detection, a new personalized approach to treatment and a better understanding of the disease.” Even with all of the good news relating to breast cancer – it continues to be one of the most prevalent cancers in the U.S.: Statistically, over 252,710 women and 2,470 men in the US will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and more than 40,500 die from the disease.
I recall wearing a pink ribbon one day while working at the hospital … a woman I spoke to had been newly diagnosed with breast cancer, and noted that she couldn’t see herself wearing one (a pink ribbon) to constantly remind family and friends of her misfortune. I thought then … and still do, that if family and friends knew of my diagnosis they would interpret the pink ribbon as a reminder and understand “if it happened to me; it could happen to you”. Or, in the words of columnist Molly Ivins (who lost her battle with inflammatory breast cancer): I have contracted an outstanding case of breast cancer, from which I intend to recover. I don’t need get-well cards, but I would like the beloved women readers to do something for me: Go. Get. The. Damn. Mammogram. Done. (Dec. 14, 1999 syndicated column).