If you think breast cancer is all around you – be it a diagnosis, or a friend, neighbor, or loved one who has been diagnosed, you would be right. If it seems like women are developing breast cancer at a younger age than ever, you would be right about that, too.
According to the American Cancer Society, 2011 saw over 13,000 women under the age of 40, who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States. One thousand, one hundred and sixty of them lost their battle with the disease. When women under the age of 50 were included, the number jumped to over 65,000, with more than 5,000 women succumbing. Nationwide, a total of over 280,000 women were diagnosed with new breast cancer cases, and almost 40,000 women died.
According to Dr. Ernie Bodai, director of Kaiser’s Sacramento Breast Health Center, and former chief or surgery, it’s true that women are getting the disease at a younger age than ever.
“In the last five or six years I’ve noticed a shift to younger women. By that, I mean pre-menopausal women. Women who are even in their 30s,” Bodai said. “We don’t really know if it’s more hormones and food additives that are increasing the risk. We do know that girls are starting their periods at younger ages, and women are entering menopause at older ages. We know there is a correlation between more menstrual cycles and breast cancer.”
The American Cancer Society adds that factors such as delayed childbirth, and having fewer children, as well as climbing rates of obesity and menopausal hormone use may be factors as well.
But as sinister as this all sounds, there is cause for hope. Women are fighting breast cancer every day – and winning.
In 2007 Alena Kesti, a then 22 year old woman, petite and sporting a crown of shorn honey-blond hair, discovered a lump in her breast. She simply assumed she had a swollen lymph node, and didn’t do anything about it. It took her then boyfriend’s mother’s diagnosis with breast cancer, for Kesti to take action and call her doctor.
“My nurse practitioner was very insistent that I go to Mercy San Juan and get a biopsy,” the Granite Bay resident said. “I was 23 by this time, and had had the lump for at least six months. By the time I went to see the surgeon, he already had paperwork for me to sign for a mastectomy. It’s a very hard thing for me to stand here and say, ‘yes, I have one breast, and the other one is a prosthetic.’”
While Kesti’s case is unusual, her full recovery is not. According to Dr. Bodai, women’s breast cancer survival rate for Stage 1 cancer is 95 percent or more.
“More women are surviving than in the past; they are enjoying a longer life, and a better quality of life than 15 or 20 years ago,” he said.
Cancer survivor, Rita O’Bear, wasn’t expecting a breast cancer diagnosis when she found a lump almost 23 years ago. At only 43 years old, the new grandmother discovered her lump; a mass that was high on her chest, almost outside of the breast area, when she was carrying her grandson.
“His hand was pressing on my chest, and it kept hurting,” the Citrus Heights resident said. “I went to the gynecologist, and she wanted me to see a surgeon.”
O’Bear was sent to Dr. Bodai, who advised her to go off caffeine and chocolate, then be re-checked in a month or two.
“I went back and had a biopsy – I certainly didn’t expect it to be cancer. When you’re that age, you think, ‘not me’. I didn’t know anyone who had cancer – I think women hid it back then,” O’Bear said. “I got the phone call. I was scared. I was numb. You think ‘this just can’t be true’. You start wondering what you are going to be around for. Am I going to see my daughter get married? Will my daughter ever have children? I would go and visit people, but I couldn’t stay in any one place for long. I went shopping the night before I had surgery. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Kesti and O’Bear both opted for chemotherapy, followed by tamoxifen, a treatment that wreaked hormonal havoc with both women, and caused early-onset menopause.
While chemo and tamoxifen are therapies that have been around for decades, Dr. Bodai is excited about the latest research in cancer treatment.
“We have new, targeted therapies using nanotechnology,” Bodai explained. “We will be able to attach nano tubes with both chemo and amino acid, which tricks tumors.”
Bodai explained that the tumors, in essence, “open up” expecting food, but instead get zapped with chemotherapy.
“It kills the tumor from within, so you won’t suffer the side effects of chemo,” he said.
Bodai is also encouraged by the TAILORx Breast Cancer Trial, which will help doctors determine if women need chemotherapy or not.
“One third of women don’t actually need chemotherapy,” Bodai said. “This genetic analysis will allow us to spare some women from chemo treatments.”
Bodai said that money raised from the U.S. Postal Service’s Breast Cancer Awareness Stamp, which Bodai spearheaded, generating $82,000,000 for research, has funded the TAILORx Study, and nanotechnology research, as well.
But in spite of all the high-tech strides in breast cancer, it always comes back to the women.
“Get a mammogram, starting at age 40, or if you have family history of breast cancer, get a baseline mammogram at 35,” Bodai advised.
Though the U.S. Preventable Task Force recently recommended mammograms start at age 50, Bodai strongly disagrees.
“That’s absolutely irresponsible,” he said. “One in five women who get breast cancer are younger than that. If you take a 40 year old woman, and don’t find her cancer for five or ten years, that makes a huge difference in her prognosis. People who work in the trenches know this is true.”
Bodai said there are a few things women can do to maintain healthy breasts.
“Do a monthly self exam, and have a clinical exam every year. Start getting mammograms at age 40, and exercise and diet to try and maintain a healthy body mass index. Some things are within your control, and are free. Take a walk for 30 minutes several days a week. Eat colorful vegetables for the antioxidant benefits.”
Bodai suggests if a woman finds anything suspicious during her monthly breast check, she should go through one menstrual cycle and see if anything has changed. If the lump is still there, she should make an appointment with her doctor.
“If your lump is rock hard, and fixed, meaning it doesn’t move, make an appointment right away,” he said.