October is breast cancer awareness month, making it the ideal time for women and men across the world to evaluate their risk for breast cancer while honoring the more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States who have battled and conquered the disease.
In 2010, the American Cancer Society estimates 207,090 women and about 1,970 men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in the United States.
Many think, “It can’t happen to me.” But, it can.
In 2006, Gilda Waren was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38. She felt a lump in her breast that was growing and tender to the touch. Just a few years prior, Gilda found a similar lump and had it removed. That lump was benign. But, when doctors biopsied this last lump, it was breast cancer.
Gilda has no family history of the disease.
“Being diagnosed with breast cancer is different for everyone, but it is so important to focus on the positive,” Gilda explains. “It is a hard time. Everything feels like it is falling apart. But, you have to stay focused and think about your family.” At that time, Waren’s two children were ages two and seven. “I thought about my kids and that kept me going. I thought to myself, I am going to fight this. I am going to be here a long time.”
After her diagnosis, Gilda underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, one year of herceptin and tamoxifen.
Gilda explains, “If you are diagnosed, listen to your doctors. They know what to do. Don’t give up. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Fight for yourself and your family.”
Signs of breast cancer
Some common signs of breast cancer include a new lump or mass, generalized breast swelling, nipple pain, redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast as well as discharge other than breast milk.
“The American Cancer Society recommends that women have a clinical breast exam every three years starting at age 20 and an annual mammogram starting at age 40,” explains Dana Kemp, regional communications director. “Additionally, women should be familiar with their bodies, especially their breast tissue, and be on the lookout for any suspicious changes.”
If you find something suspicious, contact your primary care physician immediately.
After diagnosis, what happens next?
If you or a loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer, what are the next steps? First of all, the patient will meet with a breast surgeon to discuss surgical treatment options. Then a recommendation is made to determine what surgical treatment is best for the patient. The breast surgeon will also refer the patient to an oncologist (doctor specializing in cancer treatments) to discuss the biopsy.
Common surgical treatments for breast cancer patients include a lumpectomy that removes only the tumor and surrounding tissue or a mastectomy, which is the removal of the entire breast. In both cases, the lymph nodes under the arm may also be removed to determine the stage of the disease.
Dr. Amy Sprole is a board-certified plastic surgeon with the Plastic Surgery Center who specializes in reconstructive breast. She explains, “Many women are candidates for either a mastectomy or lumpectomy.”
If a patient prefers a mastectomy, then the breast surgeon may refer the patient to a plastic surgeon to discuss reconstructive options.
“I recommend meeting with a plastic surgeon early in the process because there is a lot of misinformation out there,” says Dr. Sprole. “The patient then learns about what procedures are available to reconstruct the breast.” One option is immediate reconstruction following the mastectomy, completed in two stages. In the first stage, a tissue expander is placed beneath the skin and muscle of the chest wall to stretch the tissue. Then during the second surgery, the permanent implant is placed. In some women, immediate reconstruction with implants can be completed in a single procedure, during the same surgery as the mastectomy.
Another option is to reconstruct the breast using tissue from another location on the body, most commonly from the lower abdomen or back. This surgery can also be completed at the same time as the mastectomy.
“There are a lot of options out there for women. It is important to understand that women don’t have to undergo a mastectomy and live for a period of time without reconstruction,” says Dr. Sprole. “With immediate reconstruction options, patients appreciate the peace of mind that they will be partially or completely reconstructed when they awaken from the mastectomy surgery.”
Additionally, there are options for individuals who have chosen the lumpectomy or breast conservation option to remove the breast cancer.
“Many women are candidates for breast reduction as a way to accomplish the lumpectomy surgery,” says Dr. Sprole. “The patient may be able to receive the combined benefits of cancer treatment and relief from back, neck and shoulder pain caused by large, heavy breasts.”
After the cancer is removed, the patient once again meets with the oncologist to determine what further treatments are needed depending on the individual and stage of the disease. Breast cancer treatment options are chemotherapy, hormone therapy and radiation.
While undergoing treatments to fight breast cancer, many individuals look for someone to talk to who has fought the disease. Several local organizations offer programs designed to help individuals diagnosed with breast cancer. (For a complete listing, see the local support for survivors information on this page.)
“Having breast cancer is an enormously difficult life experience. There are permanent changes to the body, but there are lots of resources available to help patients through the process,” explains Dr. Sprole. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to do annual screenings and have good follow-up with your primary care doctor. Prevention is the best medicine.”
Local Support for Survivors
The American Cancer Society Reach to Recovery®A program designed to provide information and support to anyone facing breast cancer through one-on-one contacts with survivors. For more information, call 616- 6500.
Cancer Care Through Christ The support group meets the 2nd and 4th Thursday of the month at Central Community Church at 7 p.m. Please call 943-1800 to sign up for the support group.
Footprints at St. James Church Cancer Support Group Every Wednesday from 5:30-6:30 p.m., St. James Episcopal Church, 3750 E. Douglas, Wichita.
Immanuel Cancer Support Group 1st and 3rd Wednesday at 10 a.m., Immanuel Baptist Church, 1415 S. Topeka, Wichita.
Sharing Hope Cancer Support Group 1st Thursday at 7 p.m., Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1750 N. Tyler Road, Wichita.
Victory in the Valley Breast Cancer Support Group Meets the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at Victory in the Valley, 3755 E. Douglas, Wichita. For more information, call (316) 682-7400.
West Wichita Cancer Support Group 2nd and 4th Thursdays at 7 p.m., Westlink Christian Church, 2001 N. Maize Road, Wichita.
Witnessing for Life, Body and Soul — A cancer support group for African-American women. Meets the first Monday of each month at 6 p.m. at the American Cancer Society, 818 N. Emporia, Suite 100, Wichita. Please call (316) 684-1076 or (316) 685-1533 for more information.