There are many risk factors for getting breast cancer. Obviously women get the disease more then men. Too bad we are all getting older day by day, because age increases risk. One in seven women is likely to get breast cancer by age 90. Like many health problems, obesity and smoking seem to increase risk as well. Family history of breast cancer in your mom, sister or daughter increases your risk. So you can’t stop aging, change your genetic gender, or chose your relatives. However, you can stop shoveling unhealthy food in your mouth and dragging smoke into your lungs from a cigarette butt.
Should you or your loved one be unlucky enough to wind up with breast cancer, don’t be surprised if your surgeon or cancer doctor sends you to yet another doctor. A cancer sub-specialist called a radiation oncologist. This super special cancer doc works with radiation. Picture the stuff a nuclear bomb leaves behind, kind of the same, but not really. It’s just tightly controlled radiation to nuke cancers cells that may have escaped the surgeon’s knife.
You should also be sure to ask your doctor if your cancer has any of the following markers on it. A marker is a type of gene or protein expression found on the surface of a cancer cell. Kind of like a car decal that tells you if it is a Ford, Chevy, or Dodge. For breast cancer these decals are called ER, PR, or HER2/neu. ER stands for estrogen receptor, PR is for progesterone receptor, and HER2/neu stands for Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2. Science is known for creating long convoluted names for things then giving a short abbreviation. Maybe, we genius doctor types could think to make a short name first, but that would make it too easy on the patient.
The marker is important to know because it helps the oncologist (cancer doctor) decide the best form of treatment for the cancer after the cancer has been surgically removed. ER and PR breast cancer often are nicely responsive to Tamoxifen. This drug recognizes the decal on the breast cancer cell and prevents it from multiplying. If you have the HER2/neu breast cancer tag, then there is a new specialized drug for HER2/neu also (for you nerds, it’s called a monoclonal antibody drug).
For the most unlucky breast cancer patients sometimes your cancer has no decal, no marker, and it has spread to the lymph nodes or your armpit or other parts of your body. For these patients, they usually are put through IV hell in a bottle, chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is poison. It stops the DNA of the breast cancer cell from working. The bummer is that chemotherapy doesn’t recognize the difference between breast cancer cells and normal healthy cells, so women often have unpleasant side effects from chemotherapy. Most noticeably is her hair loss.
The good news is that breast cancer is now felt to be more like a disease that you live with than one that you die from. Just like hypertension and diabetes it needs treatment. Sure, there will people who die every day from breast cancer just as there are hundreds of thousands of people who die from the complications of high blood pressure each day. Sadly, we still have no cure. So wear pink in October. Donate money to breast cancer research. Most importantly, support your friends and family who are fighting the disease as best you can. Honor those who have succumbed to the disease by losing weight, exercising and not smoking to show you have learned something from their ultimate price paid to the disease of breast cancer.