One in eight women will develop breast cancer at some point in her life. This statistic affects all women equally. You may have a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer, but so does your doctor…and your hairdresser…and the big-name actress in your favorite movie. Rich or poor, famous or unknown, the disease treats everyone the same.
“I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.” – Angelina Jolie
Like Christina Applegate, Angelina Jolie knew she had a significant family history of breast cancer, and chose to undergo genetic testing. Like Christina, she tested positive for a BRCA1 mutation, and had a double mastectomy while in her thirties.
However, unlike Christina, Angelina chose the double mastectomy even though she didn’t have breast cancer in either breast.
The actress, producer, and director of films such as Unbroken decided to have the surgery in 2013 as a preventative measure. It reduced her risk of developing breast cancer from an estimated 87% down to approximately 5%.
Though some may consider preventative surgery extreme, it is an option for women who test positive for BRCA gene mutations and therefore have a much higher risk of developing breast cancer.
“It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue. You can seek advice, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power.” – Angelina Jolie
Joan Lunden is an accomplished author, journalist, television host, and a mother of seven.
Since 2014, she is also a breast cancer survivor.
Joan announced her diagnosis on ABC’s Good Morning America, a show she co-hosted for almost two decades. She’s spoken at length about her diagnosis and treatment in the media, on her blog, and through a book titled Had I Known. She’s also started ALIVE, a streaming video channel all about surviving breast cancer.
“I found this breast cancer community to be such an amazing, powerful, compassionate alliance.” – Joan Lunden
“Someone like me shouldn’t be diagnosed with breast cancer, that’s what was going through my mind. I wasn’t thinking about a diagnosis. I was just doing what I was supposed to do, which was staying on top of my mammograms. It was a shock.” – Sheryl Crow
Rock star and nine-time Grammy Award-winner Sheryl Crow was diagnosed at age 44 with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a non-invasive form of breast cancer. It was discovered at an early stage through an annual mammogram, and after a lumpectomy and seven weeks of radiation therapy, she was declared cancer-free.
Sheryl did not have a family history of the disease or any significant risk factors, which is not unusual. 60-70% of people with breast cancer have no known pre-existing risk factors. This is why it is important it is for everyone to have an early detection plan, regardless of family history.
“I am a walking advertisement for early detection.” – Sheryl Crow
“I am a 36-year-old person with breast cancer, and not many people know that that happens to women my age or women in their 20s. This is my opportunity now to go out and fight as hard as I can for early detection.” – Christina Applegate
Christina Applegate found fame at an early age, starring as a teenager on the sitcom Married… with Children, and going on to act in everything from Broadway musicals to Anchorman movies.
She also became a breast cancer survivor in 2008 at the young age of 36.
Christina always knew she was at risk for developing breast cancer. Her mother, Nancy Priddy, was also diagnosed with breast cancer while in her thirties, and then again in her fifties. Because of that family history, Christina made the wise choice to follow an early detection plan that included more frequent screenings starting at age 30. The cancer was therefore detected in an early stage, when it is easier to treat.
However, her mother’s history and her own early-onset breast cancer led her to also undergo genetic testing for BRCA mutations. She tested positive for a BRCA1 gene mutation, meaning that, like her mother, she had a high probability of developing breast cancer again.
So, despite the cancer only being in one breast, Christina opted for a double mastectomy. Her knowledge of the BRCA gene mutation and the risks involved allowed her to make an educated decision, choosing a proactive treatment that significantly reduces the possibility of the breast cancer spreading or coming back.
According to Christina, an important part of her treatment and recovery was being able to receive support and advice from other breast cancer survivors—people she didn’t even know before her diagnosis.
“When you get diagnosed with cancer, there’s such a sense of loneliness, but we need to know as people going through this is that you’re not alone”. – Christina Applegate
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to get screened and checked for all cancers — and to do self breast-exams.” – Robin Roberts
Robin Roberts, another co-anchor of Good Morning America, discovered a lump during a breast self-exam in 2007. An ultrasound and biopsy confirmed that it was breast cancer—the more aggressive triple-negative kind. Treatment included a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Her mother encouraged her to “Make your mess your message.” Robin has been public about her cancer struggles, even winning awards for her courage in raising awareness. She’s a vocal proponent for regular breast self-exams, which is how 40% of all breast cancer cases are detected.
“I found my lump in a self-exam! Because I was familiar with my body and the lumps, I knew this one felt different. It was in a different place on my breast, and it was hard. If I hadn’t been doing self-exams, I wouldn’t have known that.” – Robin Roberts
In 2012, some research studies have shown that factors such as traumatic events and losses can alter immune system functions, and when immune functions are altered cancer cells may have an opportunity to get themselves established within one’s body. What has been shown is that it is not the fact that a major life crisis has occurred but instead how the individual reacted to this event and coped (or didn’t cope). Therefore, identifying ways to keep your stress level in check is wise.
You should have a physical every year which should include a clinical breast exam and pelvic exam. If any unusual symptoms or changes in your breasts occur before your scheduled visit, do not hesitate to see the doctor immediately.
Women who began their menstrual cycles before age 12, have no biological children, or had their first child at 30 or older, or began menopause after 55 are at a higher risk. This means that research has proven that the number of menstrual cycles a woman has over time influences risk.
Mammography does compress the breasts and can sometimes cause slight discomfort for a very brief period of time. Patients who are sensitive should schedule their mammograms a week after their menstrual cycle so that the breasts are less tender. Your doctor may say it is fine to take acetaminophen an hour before the x-ray is performed to prevent discomfort too.
Although women who have a family history of breast cancer are in a higher risk group, most women who have breast cancer have no family history. Statistically only 5-10% of individuals diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of this disease.
Give yourself a breast self-exam once a month. Look for any changes in breast tissue, such as changes in size, feeling a palpable lump, dimpling or puckering of the breast, inversion of the nipple, redness or scaliness of the breast skin, redness or scaliness of the nipple/areola area, or discharge of secretions from the nipple.
If you discover a persistent lump in your breast or any changes, it is very important that you see a physician immediately. Though 8 out of 10 lumps are benign, all require evaluation to confirm that they are not cancerous.
Women should perform their breast self exam 7-10 days after their menstrual period starts which is also when their breasts are the least tender and lumpy. If they are no longer menstruating, then she should select the same day of the month (first of the month for example) and mark it on the calendar to remind herself when to perform this self exam. What to look for is a change from last month’s exam to this month’s exam. It is not unusual to have lumpy or bumpy breasts.
All women should know the geography of their own breasts. If having trouble remembering, draw a diagram of where the lumps, bumps, grooves, and other findings are felt so that this can be used as a reminder from month to month. There is no added value in doing breast self exams more often than monthly. Also the findings may be different as well, in relationship to where a woman is in her menstrual cycle.
Yes, there is. HRT was added to the carcinogenic list by the American Cancer Society in the early 2000s. It is recommended that women with known risks not be placed on HRT to control of menopausal symptoms. They should instead seek other safer alternatives.
There is an increased risk of breast cancer for women who have been using birth control pills for more than five years. However due to the low amount of hormones in birth control pills today, the risk is relatively small. But if a young woman has a significant family history of breast cancer, her gynecologist may recommend taking a break for a year from the pill at the 5-year time frame then resuming again for another 5 years. Although evidence-based research data does not offer strong support for this standard of care, it has nevertheless become an increasingly common practice.
Moderation is key. One drink per day has been shown to slightly increase the risk of breast cancer. Having more than one drink per day has shown to be a more significant risk factor, and the alcohol content doesn’t matter: wine, beer or a mixed drink. Alcohol also increases estrogen in your bloodstream.
Although we know that more than one drink per day increases risks, to date there are no studies that demonstrate directly that the more a person drinks, the greater their risk for cancer. And in some cases, drinking one glass of wine a day can offer heart-health benefit. If you drink alcohol, this is an important topic to discuss with your doctor so that you will know what limits are best for you to observe.
Smoking is a confirmed risk factor for many types of cancer. Recent research in the last year (2012) has confirmed that smoking is a contributing risk factor for developing breast cancer. Additionally, second hand smoke is also a risk factor for cancer. So if you are a smoker, help yourself in a significant way and join a smoking cessation program to help you stop. The day you stop smoking the healing can begin and each week in which you are smoke-free, you give yourself increasing advantages for a healthier life. Smoking also directly contributes to heart and other lung diseases, too.
A nutritious, low-fat diet (30 grams or less) with plenty of fruits and green and orange vegetables can help reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. A high-fat diet increases the risk because fat triggers estrogen production that can fuel tumor growth.
Exercise boosts the immune system and helps you to keep your weight in check. With as little as three hours of exercise per week, or about 30 minutes a day, a woman can begin to lower her risk of breast cancer. This doesn’t require going to a gym either. Power walking is more than sufficient!