Early detection, prevention key in cancer battle
News Herald (Morganton, NC)
Oct. 10--As a patient navigator for The Cancer Center at Blue Ridge Healthcare, Dolly Wilson, RN, MSN, knows too well the value of regular mammograms and early detection of breast cancer.
Her experiences working with patients at all stages of the disease has shown the devastation women endure from diagnosis to treatment, and sometimes, to death.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 232,340 new cases of breast cancer in women will occur in 2013, and 39,620 of those patients will die of the disease. However, statistics show that the death rate of breast cancer patients has been slowly but steadily declining, which researchers attribute to better early detection.
Part of the reason early detection has improved in the last several decades, stems from the work of the Susan G. Komen for a Cure foundation. The organization began after Nancy G. Brinker lost her sister, Komen, to breast cancer.
"Komen came about because of the fact that her sister had breast cancer and she saw her sister go through cold waiting rooms, long periods between suspicion and biopsy and then between biopsy and surgery and treatment," Wilson said. "She feels if her sister had had shorter intervals between all those steps that she would have had a better chance at survival. She vowed to her sister that she would make sure that this didn't happen to other women."
Because of the Komen foundation's efforts, it is now part of the American Cancer Society's and the National Cancer Institute's standards that hospitals have to meet to be accredited, Wilson said.
The Cancer Center at BRHC, meets that accreditation, Wilson said.
"That means we meet that criteria and that criteria includes making sure that when a patient has a suspicious mammogram, that the days between that and the diagnosis and the biopsy and the surgery are short. We also have certain standards that are based on what the results are of those biopsies. Depending on the results, it is like a road map as to what a patient will have next."
The earlier breast cancer is detected, Wilson said, the better chance of having less treatment and the better chance of survival.
"Early detection could possibly help a person avoid having all of those treatments or less treatments," Wilson said. "Sometimes they could just be put on Tamoxifen or a pill that would help reduce the recurrence of breast cancer."
This is why Wilson stresses the importance of having mammograms annually at the age of 40.
"A lot of times, a mammogram will find it a lot smaller than you will be able to feel it," Wilson said. "Many times, it's a period of about two years before you would actually feel a lump that a mammogram would actually pick up. So it could be about the size of your thumbnail before you would actually feel it.
"At that point, the person would have to have more different treatments to get rid of it. It could be spread to the lymph nodes and even to the bones."
One of the many reasons Wilson says women avoid having mammograms, is fear.
"One of the biggest fears I have seen out there as a breast cancer nurse is that patients often don't have a mammogram is because they say that it hurts, or they've heard that it hurts," Wilson said. "That's a common misconception. Now that mammograms are digital, 90 percent of women say they don't hurt. If they do hurt, it's because the person didn't speak up."
Wanda Harris, RT-R, at The Cancer Center agreed that communication is key to making the process more comfortable.
"The role of a mammographer is to provide the best quality mammogram for the radiologist to make a diagnosis," Harris said. "Compression is one element that is vital in accomplishing this goal. Unfortunately, the fear that some women have in regards to compression may keep them from having a mammogram. Good communication and understanding is important for both the technologist and the patient in achieving the best mammogram possible."
Since insurance companies generally only cover mammograms in those after the age of 40 unless there is a proven family history, Wilson says it's even more important for women in their 20s, 30s and early-40s to do breast self-exams. Having breast cancer at such a young age often indicates the possibility of a much more aggressive form.
"If it's estrogen driven, it actually will cause it to grow faster," she said. "If you're younger (and are diagnosed with breast cancer), that would be an indication that there is a possible genetic mutation that would be involved that would cause it to be more invasive. That would mean more family members would possibly have it, which would mean the younger you are, that it's going to be more serious."
In addition to early detection, Wilson said there are other key factors for women to consider, such as a healthier lifestyle.
"I have often heard the comment 'it seems like everything causes cancer, so why should I even try' and 'you're going to die of something so I might as well do what I want.'" Wilson said. "The view that everything causes cancer and nothing can be done is a major obstacle to cancer prevention.
"It's no wonder that consumers are confused. Individual studies taken in isolation can be profoundly misleading."
Wilson said that while the parameters of what constitutes a healthy diet have been known for decades, an unhealthy diet still ranks high on the list of what can increase a person's chances of contracting various diseases.
"There's evidence that eating lots of fruit and vegetables compared to meat can have protective effects against cancer and others diseases," Wilson said. "We all have to make choices regarding health risks. Decreasing your cancer risk begins with your own personal choices."
According to the American Cancer Society, one-third of cancer deaths are linked to poor diet, physical inactivity and carrying excess weight.
"Making a healthy lifestyle change can go a very long way toward becoming one less statistic in the war against cancer," Wilson said.
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