Angela’s Lab | Stupid Breast Cancer & Why Statistics Suck
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Pretty hard to miss it with all the promotion and attention it gets. Last week we were driving into the airport to return home from a trip and my daughter noticed one of the buildings was lit up with a pink light in support of this horrific disease that has claimed so many lives. There are many breast cancer survivors who have been spared, but they are often scarred mentally in fear of it coming back or physically from surgery. There are women that have survived round one, thinking it was over whether through reassurance from their doctors that “statistically” they should be fine or through hope. These methods of protection and survival are necessary so that you can go about your life, although never forgetting and hopefully living more fully in the moment with a new appreciation for what could have been but didn’t happen. The older we get, the clearer this notion becomes, although if you are young and have dealt with or survived the disease, you no doubt are forced to recognize this earlier than you should have to.
I’ve been putting off writing about breast cancer awareness this year, although what I want to say has been rolling around in my head since my own mother was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer about six weeks ago. She “survived” early stage breast cancer a little over five years ago by having a by-choice mastectomy on one side. Her lymph nodes were clear and she was given tamoxifen as a preventive treatment to keep the cancer from coming back. We celebrated her five-year “all-clear” check-up in May. All done… or so we thought. A few months after her all-clear she discovered a tumor on her abdomen and went to the doctor. It was the breast cancer and it had spread. It had likely been growing inside her for the last five years. Unknown to us, my mom’s original cancer diagnosis contained a specific aggressive sub-type that has a strong chance of reoccurrence and that sub-type was never treated or tracked for potential progress. My mom was asymptomatic so a scan was never done – too many “false positives,” or so the doctors say, and scanning is not part of the “national standard of care” for cancer treatment. I write this feeling disgusted and sickened that my mom’s current situation could have be caught earlier, slowed or perhaps headed off completely had we better understood her diagnosis and specific situation.
It is critical that we own our own health. We are not statistics. Doctors need to use statistics I suppose to help make decisions and describe our particular situation to us – how scared should we be, right? But remember we can always be that “statistic.” One of the 10%, 20% or 30% of people who have a higher chance of reoccurrence due to the type of cancer and treatment given or not given. Be vigilant, get your mammograms annually and if you or a loved one are ever diagnosed with any kind of cancer, make sure you thoroughly understand your personal diagnosis, get second or third opinions and ensure your medical team’s follow-up is thorough. I’ve found breastcancer.org to be an excellent resource for information.
Additionally disconcerting is last week’s announcement by the American Cancer Society recommending bumping a woman’s first mammogram up to age 45… I personally know a couple of women that likely wouldn’t be with us today if they didn’t have their first mammogram until age 45. How many years have we been hearing that “early detection is key”! The argument for less false positives and unnecessary procedures doesn’t fly if you end up with breast cancer. I would rather go through some extra testing and know that I don’t have it. And, if insurance decides to stop covering these mammograms because of this recommendation, more women stand to be diagnosed in the later stages of the disease and would face more aggressive treatments or worse. I repeat, we are not statistics.
It is heartbreaking to watch a loved one go through cancer, let alone if you are the one diagnosed. While so much funding is being put towards research resulting in life-saving treatments, I also believe more attention needs to be paid to patient education and advocacy, so that we know what to ask for and look for. A diagnosis is utterly overwhelming for all involved and we put ourselves in the hands of medical professionals who we hope are doing all they can. The bottom line is that we need to look out for ourselves and our loved ones because frankly no one else cares in the same way that we do.
Photo Credit: Google images