I was 11 years old when I first heard the words “breast cancer.” But I didn’t know much about the disease until I was almost 50.
When I wrote my book in 2006, I was overwhelmed by statistical information and unsure how much had changed over the past 40 years. I knew it was no longer an illness that was hidden or suffered in silence. I found that surgical treatments and options had improved. But I’d also seen friends undergo chemo and radiation, or been prescribed drugs that led to further mental and physical impairments. Yes, chemo brain exists. Yes, some breast cancer treatments lead to heart failure or other fatal conditions. Yes, women continue to be over diagnosed and receive unnecessary and disfiguring treatments. But the amputation of one---or even two---breasts seems nothing compared to the alternative. As my mother said to me early and often about the loss of her right breast: “I’m alive, aren’t I?”
And that she is. But it’s not thanks to October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month or the plethora of pink ribbon products lining store and supermarket shelves. All those screenings and breast self-exams haven’t made much of a difference in reducing incidence or mortality rates. Wonder why the “1 in 8 women get breast cancer” statistic sounds so familiar? It’s because it hasn't changed much over the years. Back when my mom found her breast lump it was 1 in 11.
In its recent 62-page annual report, The National Breast Cancer Coalition sums up the progress made:
"Despite years of campaigns to raise awareness, ever expanding screening programs, increased fundraising efforts and research; breast cancer incidence and mortality have not changed significantly. Worldwide, breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women and the leading cause of cancer death among women. The incidence of the disease is increasing and, despite tweaks in treatment regimens over the years and a few real advances, there has not been a dramatic change in mortality. Approximately 1.3 million women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and more than a half million women will die from the disease. By 2030, with no major changes in prevention or treatment, it is estimated that close to 800,000 women will die each year from breast cancer."
I just booked an appointment for my annual mammogram. It will be my 26th year in a row, although I am a few months behind schedule. A recent study found that exposure to x-ray and radiation up my cancer odds. Why was I subjected to screening at such an early age? Because doctors told me that my mother’s diagnosis put me at greater risk. I now know that 85% of women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease. No one told me that my dense breast tissue made it impossible for mammography to detect any lumps and bumps. I now know that the best medical advice available was wrong.
My mother is alive because she received the standard treatment of her day: a barbaric radical mastectomy. If I don’t beat the higher odds of aging and female sex, I can look forward to a less invasive but still scarring lumpectomy, followed possibly by painful radiation, maybe chemo, or other poisonous drugs that do more than removing breast flesh. Maybe I’ll get reconstructed breasts which will leave me with no sensation in my chest but will make me “look” whole again. I’ve seen far too many women stripped of their spirits, soul, and livelihoods. I, for one, don’t want to pass on this legacy to another generation. My daughter shouldn't have to face the same tired choices as her mother, or grandmother.
It’s time to take breast health away from a breast industrial complex that fuels the big business of cancer. It’s time to demand that the money and energy invested in pinking a football team, fire truck or national monument be redirected toward effective research. It’s time to cut ties with pretty pink ribbons and focus on a real cure.
It's time to acknowledge that ending breast cancer means moving in a new direction.