In October 1999, I ran on behalf of Sheryl Murphy in the CIBC’s La Course a la Vie. Her funeral was on October 8, 2002. Coincidentally, October is recognized as breast cancer awareness month. Sheryl Murphy is not the last one to suffer from this horrible disease. One in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime and one in 27 will die.
This year alone, the National Cancer Institute of Canada expects 20,500 Canadian women to be newly diagnosed with the disease. Meanwhile, an estimated 5,400 women already diagnosed will die. In fact, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women.
Breast cancer usually strikes older women, with the high-risk zone being between ages 40 and 79 and peaking in the 50s. Some things that contribute to increased breast cancer risk, like heredity factors and the age at which a woman begins her menstrual period, are beyond their control. However, other determining factors lie in every woman’s hands; her lifestyle throughout her teens and 20s can impact her future risk for breast cancer.
According to Owen Moran, the health educator at Concordia’s health services, 30 per cent of all cancer deaths are related to smoking and 30 per cent of all cancers are linked to nutrition. To lower ones risk for breast cancer, a woman should not smoke and should eat a low-fat, balanced diet.
As well, Moran encourages all young people to maintain a regular exercise regimen. This not only helps to decrease the risk of breast cancer in women but reduces the occurrence of illness in general.
High alcohol intake and the use of hormones, such as those in oral contraceptives, have also been linked to increased cancer risk. Early detection is the key preventive tactic helping lower the risk. Breast cancer can be treated and statistics from the National Cancer Institute show the average survival rate lies between 70 and 85 per cent when detected early.
While the number of women diagnosed with cancer has been steadily increasing over the years, the death count has been on the decline since the 1980s. This is largely due to a better awareness of the disease and more advanced treatments.
The breast self examination (BSE) is the first step in detection. Although the occurrence of breast cancer increases with age, young women can develop the disease. This is why at Health Services, Moran urges women in their 20s to begin practicing monthly BSE. “Number one, it’s not an invasive procedure,” he says. “The younger you start doing them[examinations], the more you get to know what’s normal. You get to know your own breast.”
BSE should be done monthly, seven to ten days after a woman starts her period. Concordia’s Health Services can help students learn to do their own BSE. As well, it offers informational brochures about breast cancer and its lending library has a women’s health section with books on the subject.
Physicians are also available for clinical breast examinations. Any woman who suspects she has found something abnormal should have it checked. Women who find lumps will require follow up examinations, often through mammography and biopsy. “If women do find the need for care from a specialist, we can refer them,” says Moran.
An estimated 50 per cent of women will find a lump at some point in their lives. However, this is no cause for immediate panic. Between 80 and 85 per cent of lumps are non-cancerous. Even when they are, most breast cancers do not grow rapidly. A cancer the size of a large pea may have been in a woman’s body for eight or 10 years. Taking a couple weeks to evaluate treatment options usually does not affect survival rates.
Treatment options can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy or a combination of the four. Based on the patient’s preferences, and the type of cancer she has, her doctor can help modify her choices.
Gene therapy research is currently underway as scientists have isolated several genes linked with increased risk of breast cancer. Genes involved in suppressing tumors and repairing genetic damage are found damaged or missing in many women with the disease. However, genetic treatments are still a few years away.
While many government programs and corporate funding support this and other research, wearing a pink ribbon, participating in runs for the cure and making donations to the Canadian Cancer Society can only help in the fight against breast cancer. One of the nine women you know could be next.
In keeping with Breast Cancer Awareness month, there will be a presentation about breast care by a guest speaker on Oct. 30. Contact Concordia’s Health Services for more details at 848-3565, or visit them at 2155 Guy, room 407. At the Loyola campus they can be reached at 848-3575, or found in AD 121-3.