October is a very special month with Athens going pink as this is such an important topic for women. I recently saw a young woman in her 40s who was just diagnosed with breast cancer. She was visibly nervous about her new diagnosis. I found out that her breast cancer was picked up on a routine screening mammogram which was done last month. I commended her on her diligence in keeping up with her routine yearly screening mammograms. She felt much better after I reassured her that because of her diligence we were able to diagnose her breast cancer at a very early stage and her chances of being cured from it was very high.
Did you know that the lifetime probability of developing breast cancer is one in six? Breast cancer is the most common cancer in females in the US and is the second most common cause of cancer death in women. The great news however is that many breast cancers are curable when detected early. Have you had your mammogram within the past year? Remember, it is never too late to get a mammogram and October is a great month to think about your breast health. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammogram for women starting at age 40 or earlier if there is strong family history of breast cancer. A yearly visit for a mammogram can be life saving! Please don’t put it off anymore because the goal is to catch it while it is still curable. If ignored it can spread to other organs and unfortunately will no longer be curable. Likewise, it is also very important for all women to do a self-breast exam at least once a month and bring any new lumps to the attention of your doctor immediately.
The young woman I mentioned earlier was very anxious to know if she had to go through chemotherapy treatments. She was so much relieved when I again reassured her that since her cancer was diagnosed so early she only needed surgery followed by radiation treatment and then take a pill a day for 5 years which will help decrease chances of any recurrences. She was fortunate enough to avoid intravenous chemotherapy treatments since her cancer was detected at such an early stage.
I get asked the “chemotherapy question” all the time. People fear chemotherapy based on some of the side effects they may have heard about many years ago. Today, chemotherapy treatments have advanced tremendously. The treatments are usually administered as an outpatient in the office and most people on chemotherapy continue to work full time and go about their lives as usual without much interruption. This is because today we have many strong medicines that very effectively prevent some of the side effects from chemotherapy including strong anti-nausea medicines and other medicines that prevent blood counts from dropping to very low levels.
When I see a woman with breast cancer, my first task is to determine the stage of her cancer. There are four stages to most cancers. This typically depends upon the size of the cancer, and whether or not it has spread to lymph nodes or other organs. Stages 1, 2 and 3 can still be cured. The initial treatment usually involves surgery with removal of the lump or the entire breast. This is in some cases followed by chemotherapy particularly if it may have spread to lymph nodes or if it is an aggressive type of breast cancer. The chemotherapy is given intravenously and travels through the body to attack any microscopic cancer cells. After completion of chemotherapy, the affected breast is treated with radiation treatments to decrease chances of recurrence within the breast. Lastly, once radiation treatments are completed, women with estrogen-sensitive cancers are started on a pill to be taken for 5-10 years so that the pill can continue to protect them and decrease chances of recurrences within the breast or elsewhere. Stage 4 breast cancer which has spread to other organs is unfortunately not curable. On the other hand, it is however still very treatable with multiple very effective treatments in the form of a pill or intravenous treatments which have shown to significantly prolong life and also significantly improve quality of life.
It is very exciting to see so many new medications that have been and continue to be approved for treatment of breast cancer over the past 4-5 years. For example, about 10 years ago, we did not have good treatments for some of the very aggressive breast cancers called Her2/neu positive breast cancers. Today, we have non-chemotherapy medicines with minimal side effects called targeted treatments for Her2/neu positive breast cancers that have cured many of these previously incurable cancers. These medicines don’t cause hair loss and are not nauseating and are truly remarkable drugs! We have many such promising drugs in the pipeline being evaluated in clinical trials and will hopefully be approved in the coming years.
Take charge of your breast health. Please be proactive. Do your monthly self-breast exam which involves simply feeling around the breast and alerting your doctor to any new lumps or changes in the breast. Finally, remember that being proactive and making it to your mammogram appointment just once a year can be life saving! If caught early, it is curable. Go Pink Athens!
Priya Rudolph MD, PhD
Dr. Priya Rudolph, a graduate from Yale University is an experienced hematologist/oncologist with Georgia Cancer Specialists (www.gacancer.com). She has offices in Athens (ph 706-369-4478) and at the Cowles Clinic in Greensboro (Ph 706 454-0159). Georgia Cancer Specialists is a top 10 privately owned practice and is a national leader in advanced cancer treatment and research. Its physicians and staff offer many clinical trials and state of the art personalized care to each individual patient.