When you think of October, brown, ruby red, and harvest gold may come to mind. But right now, the world is awash with pink — pink for the thousands of women whose lives have been touched by breast cancer. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and in honor of that, it’s time to grab some breast cancer good.
“Good,” you ask? Yes, good. Breast cancer, its cure rates and its treatment options have come a long way in recent decades, leaving those diagnosed with more options, better prognoses and increased support. Receiving the diagnosis is no less terrifying for the approximately 227,000 patients diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year, but the many advancements in breast cancer treatment are cause for celebration.
Three decades ago, the medical community focused on aggressive treatments and their results, but over time, they have taken a different approach. “In the last 10 years, our breakthroughs are just the opposite,” says Joseph Kash, M.D., medical oncologist at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill. “We now look for ways to get the same, or better, results with less aggressive therapies or procedures.”
While radical mastectomies were historically the next course of action following a diagnosis, specialists learned over time that lumpectomies resulted in similar cure rates for patients. The same is true for lymph node excisions; three decades ago, most women with breast cancer had lymph nodes removed, leaving them at risk for complications. “In last three years, the majority of patients don’t need that surgery,” Dr. Kash says. “With standard therapy alone, they do just as well.”
Today, patients not only benefit from hormonal medicines like Tamoxifen, which Dr. Kash believes contributes to increasing cure rates, but also from testing that allows for cancer-specific medication. “In the case of HER2-positive cancers, patients now receive targeted medicines,” Dr. Kash says. “These cancers are no longer considered the most aggressive and instead are more treatable.”
The Oncotype test, a gene-based test that analyzes how cancer will respond to different types of treatment, is an instrumental development that ensures patients receive the exact treatment they need. “In the past, almost everyone was offered chemotherapy,” Dr. Kash says. “Now we have a test that provides the genetics of the tumor, shown to be very accurate, so we learn which women will do well without chemotherapy.” This means less invasive, but more effective treatment for patients.
Dealing with the diagnosis
From the moment of diagnosis, teams of professionals support patients in every way. Hospitals offer navigators to help with scheduling, finances, and the emotional toll the diagnosis can take. Genetic counselors alleviate concerns about patient’s family members, and doctors remain focused on treating the whole person.
Dr. Kash discusses the positive ways in which a patient’s cancer will be addressed at the very first visit. “It takes physical energy to see the glass as half full, but I urge my patients to focus on the real possibility and likelihood that things will go well,” he says. “And it’s not a false hope, it’s a real hope.”
Dr. Kash reminds us that there are thousands of unknown soldiers to thank for that real hope and the fact that today, the vast majority of breast cancer cases are cured without reoccurrence. “For 60 years, women have volunteered to be a part of clinical trials and research and gave of themselves at a time they were experiencing great anxieties and fear,” Dr. Kash says. “From their experience, they’ve given these advancements to future generations.”
Molly Logan Anderson is a writer, wife and mom of three who lives in the Chicago suburbs. Intent on finding good in every day through her website www.GrabTheGood.com, she hopes to help others do the same. Visit her there to receive her humorous and heartwarming take on life via your inbox. Good family, good advice, good causes and good humor - Molly is writing about it all.