Religious Abuse
Jesus factor
Judge Bartell
Breast cancer confusion - experts' advice varies
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock

Examine your breasts for lumps.

No, don’t bother.


Avoid fatty foods, which can promote cancer.

Guess what? Fatty foods are good for you.


Hormone therapy can safely minimize the effects of menopause.

Talking hormones can promote breast cancer.


If you have whiplash from reading women’s health headlines about breast cancer from the past few years, you’re not alone. Even “facts” that seem like common sense—that one should do self-exams, for example—are being questioned by different segments of the medical community. What’s a woman to do?


“Be persistent with people in the medical profession,” says Sarah, 52. Sarah was diagnosed at 49 with three different cancers in one breast. She had found the lump on her own, but had a regular appointment already scheduled. Sarah’s doctor wanted to save her breast, but for Sarah, that wasn’t a priority. “I told him that my son was done with it,” she says, “and that I didn’t need it anymore.” Sarah underwent a modified radical mastectomy.


The words “breast cancer” inflict terror in the minds of most women. Although statistically, more women will die of heart disease, the thought of losing a breast is frightening to contemplate. For women aged 34-50, breast cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer. Current statistics available through the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation show that one of every seven women will eventually get breast cancer.


About 90 percent of breast lumps are found during self-exams (and most will be benign). Yet many women don’t do breast exams—maybe they forget, or they don’t think it’s important, or they’re afraid of what they may find. But unlike certain other forms of cancer, breast cancer is very treatable in its early stages.


Dr. James Stewart is an oncologist with UW Health. His advice: work together with your primary care physician to decide which advice to follow. Not every magazine headline is worth your attention. “And on the internet, you can find anything you want,” he says. “It can get you spinning and whirling at a pretty good rate.”


For example, much is being made of new MRI screening techniques. But Stewart warns that the MRI won’t be taking the place of the mammogram anytime soon. “The problem right now with the MRI is that it is very sensitive, and it finds a lot of non cancerous abnormalities,” he says. “It does have a role, but it’s not a simple test and not everyone can do it properly. We’re learning how best to use it.”


Many studies are being done on different methods of treatment, including hormonal therapy and new chemotherapy drugs that have fewer side effects than current and past types of chemo. “But we’re still kind of sorting out how cancer cells work,” he explains. “Breast cancer is actually not a single disease, but lots of different diseases.”


There is some good news—breast cancer is being caught earlier, in its more treatable stages, compared to 30 or 40 years ago. Some doctors are putting less emphasis on breast self-exam because most lumps found this way are benign; still, to assure early detection, Stewart suggests continuing the practice. “Women are more likely to notice a small change in their own breasts,” he says.


Sue Ann Thompson, Wisconsin’s former First Lady and founder and president of the WWHF, knows firsthand what it feels like to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Her organization focuses on women’s health issues including breast cancer, and provides scholarships for cancer research. Thompson, like many, is concerned about the scarcity of women in scientific research. “We need more women on research teams to ask the right questions,” she says. “And we need to funnel research dollars to the right places. We can go light years into space and see something that existed a billion years ago, but we can’t find tiny tumors in the breast.”


But Thompson also emphasizes, “Early detection is still the only cure we have today. Women must be vigilant about getting mammograms every year, and they must do breast self-exams. The information is out there, but we constantly need reminders to do that.”


In addition to self-exams and doctor exams, Thompson says, the rules of breast health are the rules of health overall—a low-fat diet, exercise, good nutrition, no smoking, and limiting alcoholic intake. “One drink a day can contribute to cancer,” she says. For women under 40 who have a family history of breast cancer, “25 or 30 is not too young to have a mammogram.”


For Sarah, it’s been a long, tough road, full of decisions about which way to go. When she was diagnosed with cancer and chose to undergo a modified radical mastectomy, she also chose to forgo chemotherapy and radiation, since her doctor had said there was only a 7% chance of a recurrence.


Unfortunately, her cancer did recur and has now spread to different parts of her body. She has tried various chemotherapies, including one that left her fingers permanently numb, one that has caused extreme stomach pain and one that “knocked me out so bad I couldn’t function.” 


Her suggestion to women: “Take care of yourself. You know your own body better than anyone else.”


Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Woman. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

Return to words & stuff freelancing - Teresa's articles & expertise