Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women. Right now, roughly one in eight women born in the United States will get breast cancer at some point in their lives. Those statistics sound pretty scary, but there are other present-day realities that are much more reassuring: early detection and prevention or, should that not be enough, successful medical treatments, breast reconstruction and other reconstructive surgery, as well as advanced plastic surgery with much better results than what was once available to breast cancer survivors.
In 2015, having breast cancer doesn’t signify the end of any part of your life, and National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is not about instilling fear or teaching women to dread their future; it’s about education as a way to empowerment. It’s about how enlightenment can lead to early detection or prevention. It’s about every woman knowing what her options are should she find herself on the receiving end of those words that no one ever wants to hear: “You have cancer.”
They are only three little words, but they’re terrifying to every person who they have ever been spoken to. And while no one wants to hear them, women in the US are at the point (medically) where they can be proactive and prepared to deal with this news, should they receive it. National Breast Cancer Awareness Month aims to take the panic and despair that those words can elicit and harness these feelings into knowledge, determination and hope.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer is not a death sentence; it’s a swift and unexpected turn of events. It’s a looming adversary in a story that you hoped you would never have to tell about yourself. But it is not a death sentence—not anymore. The odds of surviving breast cancer are better than ever, especially if it’s found and treated early. A mammogram, which screens for breast cancer, can help find breast cancer at an earlier stage when it’s much easier to treat; knowledge really is power in these circumstances.
There is no situation in which “hope for the best; prepare for the worst” applies more exactly. Be optimistic, be filled with hope and confidence, but also, be filled to the brim with knowledge. Those are the main goals of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month: hope, optimism, education and preparation.
Speaking of hope, what’s the good news in this situation? According to the American Cancer Society, there are an estimated 2.8 million breast cancer survivors living in the U.S. alone—clear evidence of the more than 25-year decline in the breast cancer mortality rate.
2015 has seen even more medical and surgical advances, making prolonged health, complete remission, and/or breast reconstructive surgery a possibility for everyone:
- The FDA granted accelerated approval to a drug called Palbociclib in February. When used with the breast cancer drug Letrozole in trials, Palbociclib was able to increase the amount of time study participants lived without their treatable, yet incurable cancer progressing.
- The new Oncotype Dx test analyzes 21 genes within a tumor to determine whether or not the cancer is likely to recur, and whether or not chemotherapy will make a difference.
- In January, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that a much less aggressive chemotherapy drug called Taxol, used in combination with Trastuzumab, was just as effective in helping women stave off breast cancer recurrence and death after three years.
- A meta-analysis published in the journal The Lancet confirms that osteoporosis medications can reduce breast cancer recurrence in the bone and decrease deaths in postmenopausal women.
- Some women are concerned that treatment might not be covered by their insurance companies if they have undergone genetic testing for BRCA mutations and the results were positive. The main concern is that their cancer would count as a pre-existing condition. Luckily, The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) prohibits discrimination in health coverage and employment due to genetic information.
- According to the Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998 (WHCRA), insurance companies must pay for reconstruction after mastectomy. Even without the presence of cancer, or if insurance companies have been changed between mastectomy and reconstruction, or if it’s been years since the mastectomy, they are required to pay, and there are also assistance programs.
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In 2015, reconstructive surgery is available to any woman in the U.S. who wants it. New treatments, as well as improved reconstructive surgery (TRAM Flap Procedure, DIEP Flap Surgery, and Tissue Expanders Procedure), mean that women who have breast cancer today have more choices and better outcomes. There are different types of mastectomies, some of which save the skin or even the nipple and areola. Women who have a mastectomy may choose reconstructive surgery to rebuild the shape and look of the breast.
If you are thinking about having reconstructive surgery, it’s a good idea to talk about it with your surgeon and a plastic surgeon experienced in breast reconstruction before the surgery to remove the tumor or breast. This lets both surgical teams plan the best treatment for you, even if you want to wait and have reconstructive surgery later.