your breasts for lumps.
foods, which can promote cancer.
Fatty foods are good for you.
therapy can safely minimize the effects of menopause.
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?
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
to women: “Take care of yourself. You know your own body better than anyone else.”