We’re aware of breast cancer. Now what?
There isn’t a pink ribbon in the world that will give you as much perspective as an actual breast cancer diagnosis.
Since I’ve joined “the club,” I’ve realized that Breast Cancer Awareness Month leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not the ribbons, the merchandise, or even the NFL players in pink cleats; it’s the word itself—Awareness. Do you know anyone who isn’t aware of breast cancer? With one in eight women contracting breast cancer in their lifetimes, I would guess that most of us are not only aware, but personally connected to someone who has the disease. Let’s set the bar higher: this October, instead of awareness, let’s work on education:
Education about breast cancer screening and how there’s so much more to it than getting mammograms when you turn 40.
Education about how even though people believe breast cancer is one of the “curable” cancers, and we survivors like to celebrate how tough we are, it’s still a disease that kills a lot of women.
Education about the risk of recurrence: for many of us, the cancer will come back at some point in our lives, even if we are, for now, “cured.” And,
Education about the importance of research funding, which is the only thing that will bring us closer to permanent cures.
To kick off Breast Cancer Education Month, I’ll dispel some of the breast cancer myths that I believed in my pre-diagnosis naïveté, and share the hard truths I’ve learned along the way.
Myth: Mammograms for everyone! They’re the key to preventing breast cancer.
Truth: Mammograms are great—Unless you’re among the 50% of women who have dense breast tissue. It was easy to feel my tumor, but we couldn’t even see it on my mammogram. It lit right up on my MRI, however.
Myth: If you don’t have a family history of breast cancer, you’re not at risk.
Truth: Only about 5-10% of breast cancers are hereditary. I had no family history of breast cancer. Most of us don’t.
Myth: We need a cure for breast cancer.
Truth: Breast cancer has many different subtypes, and there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment. Some breast cancer cells grow in the milk ducts, and others grow in the lobules. Some have receptors for a protein called HER2, others have receptors for estrogen and/or progesterone. Some cells have all three types of receptors (“triple positive”), and others have none (“triple negative”). That was all a long-winded way of saying that we don’t need “a cure,” we need cures, plural.
Myth: Early detection means you’re curable.
Truth: How quickly breast cancer is diagnosed has little impact on how advanced the disease is. Some breast cancer types grow slowly and others spread aggressively. A friend of mine went to the doctor with pain in her back and turned out to have metastatic (stage 4) breast cancer that had already spread into her bones. She didn’t have any indications of the disease prior to that.
Myth: Everybody survives breast cancer these days. Just stay positive and you’ll be fine!
Truth: Thanks to better screening and treatment options, overall breast cancer survivorship is at an all-time high. However, one in three women who has been diagnosed with an early-stage breast cancer will see it spread (“metastasize”) to other parts of her body in her lifetime, and this could happen years or even decades after a “successful” treatment. Once breast cancer has spread, it is incurable and terminal, and more than 40,000 Americans die from stage 4 breast cancer each year. Early detection can’t save these lives. Prevention can’t save these lives. Positivity can’t save these lives. The only way to save these lives is to fund the research that develops effective treatments.
There was a time when awareness was what we needed. When First Lady Betty Ford underwent a radical mastectomy in 1974, it was considered taboo to discuss breast cancer. But instead of withdrawing from the press, Ford used her position to speak candidly about the disease, and she eventually became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society—where she helped to kick off the first Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We owe a lot to Ford’s early advocacy work, but it’s time to step up our messaging so we can better serve the people who are diagnosed with this terrible disease. Education is the new first step in supporting breast cancer research and ultimately, saving lives.
Ashley Armstrong, @breastcanceryogi