It’s October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month. A time to honor those who succumbed to the disease, show support to those still fighting it, educate and encourage women to get screened for it and raise money for the efforts to eradicate it.
As a survivor, this month is always bitter-sweet for me. It’s a reminder of the darkest time in my life. Yet, it also elicits true gratitude for the blessing of survival and the people who carried me through it. Every October, my instincts are to remember and be grateful in the same way I fought breast cancer – privately. But, I think most survivors feel as I do, that we have an obligation – to our sisters who are no longer here to speak to it and our sisters who do not yet know they too will fight this disease – to be leading voices in honoring, supporting, educating, encouraging and fighting breast cancer.
As a fitness professional, there is an added responsibility to speak to the importance of regular screening for breast cancer specifically and all health screening generally. Taken together, there is no escaping the necessity for me to merge my personal breast cancer experience with my fitness expertise to share with you what I’ve learned:
No one is immune: The majority of breast cancer cases cannot be attributed to genes, family history or lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity and alcohol or drug abuse. And that was true for me. I had zero breast cancer risk factors. I also was doing all the “right” things to keep my risk low, but I got it at the age of 43 anyway. My doctors and I have no idea why I got breast cancer. I will likely never know. Never put off screening because you are fit or considered low risk.
Mammograms aren’t enough: Annual mammograms are important but they’re only one screening tool. And for a minority of women who have dense breast tissue like I did, mammograms are a flawed tool. My tumor grew to the size of a Brussels sprout less than six months after my last clean mammogram and ultrasound. Though women with dense tissue aren’t at higher risk for getting breast cancer, they are at higher risk for false negatives on mammograms and ultrasounds, which are the only medical tools used to catch breast cancers early. And, because early detection is the best predictor of survival, women with dense tissue have a lower survival rate. Regular self-exams are a must in the fight against breast cancer. Begin monthly self exams early in life, continue them even after beginning mammogram screenings, demand ultrasound screenings in addition to mammograms if you have dense breast tissue, advocate for not delaying mammography screening past the age of 40 and demand that some resources be allocated to the discovery and implementation of more reliable screening.
Always trust your gut and that includes your gut feeling about your doctors. My friend’s barely-perceptible tumor was only discovered after several mammograms and ultrasounds. The reason for the multiple tests? She just knew in her gut something wasn’t right. And she had a doctor who listened to her, trusted her instincts and advocated for her. Self-knowledge and intuition are vital in the fight against breast cancer.
Breast cancer isn’t one disease and the women (and men) who have it aren’t homogeneous: Invasive, non-invasive, hormone-fed, non-hormone-fed, stages, grades, metastasized, non-metastasized breast cancers; tests and procedures like biopsies, MRIs, lumpectomies, node biopsies; treatments like mastectomies, radiation, chemotherapy; and post-cancer considerations like hormone therapies, genetic testing, frequency of screenings and risks of recurrence and related cancers; how old she is and where she is in her life stage and overall health…every single one of these variables is different for each woman with breast cancer. Each variable changes her options and the recommended protocol. Every single treatment and follow-up test carries its own set of risks, possible side effects and has an effect on the probability of recurrence and survival.
It is dizzying, to say the least. This says nothing of the physical, emotional and sexual repercussions that breast cancer causes and how these factors affect decisions about nipple-preserving surgery or breast reconstruction surgeries. News articles on celebrity cases and published opinions of those in the medical profession that tend to give a generalized recommendation – such as everyone should be tested for the BRCA gene or too many women are opting for unnecessary mastectomies – do all women a disservice. How a woman decides to test and treat her cancer, what risks she chooses to accept, how she handles the post-cancer tests, treatment and aesthetic outcome and whom she chooses to involve in these decisions is up to her and her alone. If someone you care about is diagnosed, it’s imperative to refrain from unsolicited advice, opinions or anecdotal stories. Even a person who has had a form of the disease should refrain from inserting her experience into someone else’s. Every breast cancer case is different.
Breast cancer is an ugly, horrible, terrifying thing. I don’t wish it on anyone. But more women than ever are surviving and thriving despite this disease. And, I have no doubt that Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Susan G Komen Foundation and the Avon Walk are among the many reasons for this.
Ladies, self-screen and get screened, encourage the women in your life to do the same and give to the cause in any way that you can. Gentlemen, for the sake of your mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, encourage them to get screened and give to breast cancer research.
Though it predominantly afflicts women, breast cancer affects all of us in one way or another. Let’s do what we can to honor those who fought valiantly, support those who still fight and find a cure to spare the next generation the scourge of this terrible disease. Click here to donate.
You can learn how breast cancer changed my fitness focus in the About Me section of my website.