What every woman needs to know about breast cancer

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Knowledge is power

What every woman needs to know about breast cancer
Geri Halliwell arrives at a breast cancer awareness fundraiser (MJ Kim/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

The survival rates for breast cancer are good -- better than good, really -- especially for breast cancer in its earliest stages.

— Dr. Christopher Sherman, specialist in mammography

The power of pink is a message that should extend far beyond October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month. As we move away from the pink balloons, T-shirts and slogans, we need to continue to be aware of our own bodies, as education is key to survival. As for the breast cancer survivors, those who are still fighting and the women who have lost their battles, their stories should continue to be told. By sharing these women’s stories, getting educated and talking about what breast cancer awareness really means, we keep hope alive and inspire others to keep fighting.

Raising awareness

Dr. Christopher Sherman, who specialises in mammography, notes that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. However, with early detection, Sherman explains that the chances for survival are high. According to Sherman, mammography can detect breast cancer at its earliest stages; more specifically, before the cancer can actually be felt by the patient or by an examining physician.

"Typically, [early detection occurs] when it is less than 1 centimetre in size," said Sherman. "This is called a preclinical lesion, because it cannot be felt by the physician in the clinic but can be seen on mammography." That's why regular mammographies, which can detect these small tumors, are so important. “The survival rates for breast cancer are good -- better than good, really -- especially for breast cancer in its earliest stages," he said. "Women just have to get their mammograms. Then the chemotherapy we have will work most of the time." (He does note that there are forms of breast cancer that are resistant to chemotherapy, such as the triple-negative breast cancer.)

With increased awareness and funding, Sherman hopes to see further advancements made. “The poor economy prevents adequate funding for further improvement in chemotherapeutic treatment,” said Sherman. “Should the country find its way back to prosperity, funding should become available to make more advancements in cancer chemotherapeutic agents, such as gene-directed therapies.”

Despite that, women today still have many tools to stay safe and healthy. The American Cancer Society recommends that a woman obtain a baseline screening mammogram at age 35 then annual mammography after age 40. Sherman says that breast cancer in women under the age of 40 is rare, but that it is still important to get checked at 35 and to become educated about overall breast health awareness.

Women should remember that a breast cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence, and there is still a high chance of survival. However, for the woman who does receive the news that she has breast cancer, Sherman says there are some immediate steps that proceed. "Typically, the woman's physician tells her the results of her breast biopsy in that physician's office. The woman's physician sets up an appointment with a breast surgeon for surgery -- partial or complete mastectomy. This is typically done the same day as the woman is told," said Sherman. He notes that if a woman is diagnosed with DCIS or early stage invasive ductal carcinoma, she typically goes for partial mastectomy, then postoperative radiation therapy. If the cancer is in more than one of four quadrants of the breast and is still early-stage, then the woman typically gets a mastectomy. In late-stage cancer, where the cancer is larger than 5 centimetres and/or metastasised to the axillary lymph nodes, he said, "then the woman goes to an oncologist for chemotherapy to shrink the cancer in the breast and lymph nodes before surgery."

Never stop fighting

Early detection helped her to survive. However, it was Jane Cashner’s faith, family and friendships that carried her through some of life's bleakest moments. Cashner vividly recalled the feeling of despair upon first being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. “I remember feeling that this was such a death sentence and saw no hope at the time,” said Cashner. “I experienced anger, confusion, doubt, anxiousness and a multitude of other emotions. I cried a lot.”

Cashner has remained cancer-free for eight years. Her story of survival bears testament to the fact that having breast cancer is not a death sentence. “With knowledge and much prayer, I learned that there is so much more hope than that. I spent time learning about the cancer I had. I wanted to find out how to be healthier, something I had not thought too much about,” said Cashner.

Equipped with knowledge, loving support and hope for the future, Cashner found the strength she needed to wage war against cancer. In addition, Cashner was able to catch the cancer early, as she noticed a spot on her breast and immediately sought medical attention. “I had it tested several times and the reports were all negative. I went on to church camp and when I got back, the spot had got a little bigger, so once again I had it tested," said Cashner. "It was negative again, but my doctor wanted to remove it since it had grown. When I came out of surgery, I was stunned and numb to find out it was cancerous."

Despite first learning of the shocking news, Cashner said taking action early on played a crucial role in surviving. “There is so much information available today. Lives can be saved with early detection,” said Cashner. “It has allowed me to live.”

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