October is breast cancer awareness month, and for a friend of ours, this year’s information and awareness campaign came very close and personal. He received word earlier this month that his daughter had discovered a lump in one of her breasts. While she was still deciding what to do, a second lump was discovered. There are many four-letter words in the English vernacular that can evoke disgust, even outrage in some. However, there is one with six letters where the universal reaction is fear.
It is more than mere coincidence that his daughter, at age 29, has been diagnosed with breast cancer, her mother had a major mastectomy performed when she was the identical age. Family history is an important indicator of one’s prospects for contracting cancer of all types but particularly in the breast. According to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, many Americans with a family history of breast, ovarian and prostate cancer, are electing to be tested for gene mutations. The report said 70,000 people last year were treated for the gene mutations linked to breast cancer alone. The number increased from 20,000 the previous year. Fear of the unknown is leading many to take the screening approach. The average lifetime risk for women of breast cancer is about 13 percent, but the presence of genes linked to breast cancer can increase the lifetime risk of contracting the disease significantly.
Genetic testing may detect the presence of genes and the knowledge may help one with the uncertainty over the matter. The question of what to do about it still remains. The options for treatment still involve devastating operations. There remains the doubt among doctors and scientists about how much non-surgical means decrease the risk. An estimated 190,000 Americans are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. For the majority the disease strikes unexpectedly. It would seem logical that with knowing one could take preventative measures. But the choices are not great — watch and wait, take drugs that might reduce risk but carry side effects or remove the breasts before cancer has a chance to strike.
Quinn because of her family history has decided to have both breasts removed now, rather than wait to see how or if the cancer will develop. It is a pragmatic approach and one I would have expected of her. She is a resilient young lady. I remember her as a young teenager getting acclimated to a new town, neighborhood, school, and trying to fit in with new friends. It is never easy for our children to move from one town to another but it is particularly difficult for teenagers. Three years later she had to deal with relocation again. This time it was made increasingly more difficult because she had just made the drill team at her school. As she was finishing up her high school career in a new town and state, her parents decided to divorce. Her father took another job in another state over 1,000 miles away. The oldest child, she became the communications conduit not only for her two parents and their families, but for her two younger brothers. She has been able to get a university degree, become employed as a classroom school teacher and is preparing to be married.
The good news for Quinn and others sharing her situation is that statistics released in 1997 show that cancer patients are living longer and even “beating” the disease. Information from the AMA showed that the death rate from the dreaded disease has decreased by three percent in recent years and the survival rate has now reached 50 percent. Not only are those stricken surviving, but they are experiencing a better quality of life while under treatment. Hopefully we will continue to make even greater strides.
The public awareness of breast cancer has grown considerably, and I am sure pink ribbons will still be seen after the calendar rolls over to November this Thursday. I know of several locally that will remain in anticipation of a Nov. 7 operation.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.