The Central Virginian

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The color of courage

Posted on Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Pink was never really a favorite color of mine­—I always preferred purple and red, but not together. But in the past three years, I’ve become quite fond of the color pink and what it represents.

The pink ribbon is a symbol of breast cancer. In October, you see that color everywhere as people pause to recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I am a proponent of awareness and what it means. Not just because I like the color pink, but for the fact that educating men and women about the disease can save lives.

By teaching both men and women—yes, men can get breast cancer, too—to be aware of their body and any changes, as well as the importance of self examinations and mammograms, an early diagnosis can be made and the outcome much more favorable.

Breast cancer isn’t a one-size-fits-all disease—there are several different kinds ranging from your average garden-variety invasive ductal carcinoma to Paget’s disease or inflammatory breast cancer.

In most cases, there is no pain to alert someone that they have cancer. It’s important to know, too, that not all cancer is found because of a lump. Sometimes, because of the type of cancer it is, there could just be an odd sponginess in an area of the breast or it could be something as innocuous as an itchy rash that doesn’t go away.

According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health, 232,340 women and 2,240 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 alone, while 39,620 women and 410 men will die from the disease.

Just because no one in your family has ever had breast cancer, it doesn’t mean that you won’t one day be diagnosed. You could be the first in your family!

The good thing, though, is we’ve come such a long way in the past 35 years as major advances are made in cancer research. Today, a diagnosis of breast cancer does not have to be a death sentence. Many more breast cancer patients are living longer and healthier lives than ever before in our history.

I know because I am one of them. Diagnosed at the age of 46, I am three years out from my own diagnosis of Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma.  And look at Cathy Portner, who we featured in an article in last week’s issue.  She is 18 years cancer free!

For me, I am thankful to be living in this day and time if not simply because of the great strides that have been made in medicine over the past few decades.

In the 1970s, the only surgical option available to someone diagnosed with the disease was mastectomy and harsh chemotherapy. Combination chemotherapy was in its earliest stages, according to the NCI.

Today, patients have choices and are actively involved in their own treatment decisions. Some, like myself, are able to have a lumpectomy, also known as breast-conserving surgery, followed by radiation.

Even more amazing are the great strides that have been made in genome research. I am fortunate that my medical team was on the cutting edge of this arena and my insurance company, after an appeal, paid the over $3,500 bill to have the Oncotype DX test done.

Because the test showed that my particular cancer was not aggressive and had a smaller chance at recurrence, the information saved me from having to undergo any chemotherapy treatments.

That knowledge not only saves money in the long run for some, it also prevents patients from having to receive treatment that may not be medically necessary.

Others who learn that they have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, which predisposes them genetically to develop breast cancer, may need to be extra vigilant. Some women with this hereditary gene take radical steps to eliminate the chance of getting the disease before it ever has a chance to begin.

Then there is HER2 (human epidermal growth factor 2) positive cancer which is decidedly much more aggressive and less receptive to hormonal therapies.  This can occur in any type of cancer, not just breast cancer.

Tests can also help patients and doctors learn whether the tumor feeds on estrogen and progesterone hormones—like mine. This knowledge allows the patient to decide whether to take hormonal therapies such as Tamoxifen or Arimidex, aimed at reducing those hormones to prevent recurrence.

Digital mammography is another exciting tool, as this state-of-the-art technology helps medical professionals diagnose breast cancer at its earliest stages for those who get regular mammograms.  Because of this tool, more people are getting diagnosed in time to make a real positive difference in the final outcome.

For those who are afraid to have a mammogram done because their mother, aunt or grandmother said it is a painful procedure—it’s not. Take it from me, it’s a myth, and I certainly have a lot more up top to mash than most.

The procedure is only slightly uncomfortable as  the technician wrestles your anatomy onto the plate and compresses it to get the best images possible.

After a couple of poses (I just pretend I’m a model), where they tell you to put your arm just so, curve your back this way, hold your head this way, all the while sucking in your gut and holding your breath so you don’t move while the image is being taken—it’s over—at least until next year.

The effort is more than worth it, too. I never took mammograms seriously because no one had ever had breast cancer in my family – or so I thought at the time.

Fortunately, I was lucky and discovered my lump quite by accident and wasted no time in having it checked out.  At first, I wondered if I was overreacting and if the doctor would think I was being silly.  It’s a good thing I don’t mind looking silly, because it turned out my worries were justified.

I urge every woman to get regular annual mammograms. And for younger women whose mother, sister, aunt or grandmother was diagnosed with the disease, you should ask your doctor whether you should get mammograms at an earlier age.

Most of all—be aware of your body and subtle changes.  It’s better to be overly cautious and check it out rather than wait until it’s too late. It’s easier to treat breast cancer in the early stages than it is when it has advanced.

So, join me in applauding the color pink, not just in October, but all year long.  To me, there’s nothing sissified about the color it at all.

Pink represents courage, strength, spirit and love.