Sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) form a pink ribbon logo on the flight deck to show support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Adam M. Bennett/Released)

Advocating for Mammography and Breast Self-Exam

By Nikki Levinson-Lustgarten, breast care coordinator, Naval Hospital Jacksonville Breast Care Center

Sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) form a pink ribbon logo on the flight deck to show support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Adam M. Bennett/Released)
Sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) form a pink ribbon logo on the flight deck to show support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Adam M. Bennett/Released)

When a woman hears the words “breast cancer” the world narrows dramatically. 

Though not the leading cause of death in women, it is one that can affect her quality of life and her relationships with family and community. Treatments include removing both breasts (mastectomy) with immediate reconstruction, simple biopsy or lumpectomy (just removing the affected breast tissue). 

According to the American Cancer Society and CDC, this year over 200,000 people will be diagnosed with breast cancer but only 40,000 will die from breast cancer. One percent (approx 1,000) of breast cancers diagnosed will be men. Interestingly, in the last five years the death rate has decreased even as the rate of diagnosis has remained steady–due in large part to the tremendous effort made over the last decade encouraging women to have annual mammograms.

I am a strong advocate of breast self-exam/awareness (BSE) and mammography. Despite the controversy over when, who and how often mammograms are done, women continue to have one annually. Since cancer has been in the breast at least five to seven years before it can be identified on a mammogram, a monthly BSE can be lifesaving.

Some cancers are found on mammograms as tiny grains of salt or sand. Termed ductal carcinoma in situ (DClS) and often called pre-cancerous, this form of cancer has a greater than 95 percent cure rate and may be treated with simple surgery and radiation.

While the majority of breast cancers start in the ducts of the breasts, some begin in the breast lobules—the glands that produce milk. Lobular cancer is very difficult to detect with traditional mammography as it is less likely than other forms of breast cancer to cause a firm breast lump.  Because of this, lobular cancer often appears as a thickening of the tissue, a new area of fullness, swelling or change in the texture of the skin, such as a dimpling or peau d’orange, that suddenly appears.

I hope you understand why many consider BSE an important component of a healthy routine. Treatment for most breast cancer is surgery, possible x-ray treatment and hormone or chemotherapy. Advances in technology have allowed operations to further identify tumor components and treatments. No longer is everyone getting toxic medications. Some may take a hormone blocking medication for five to seven years while others have chemotherapy that is less physically taxing. Even radiation has changed to create a more targeted therapy with less disruption to underlying body parts such as the heart and lungs.

It used to be a celebration when breast cancer patients reached the five-year mark. While we know that some breast cancers can reoccur within two years, we are now looking to the 10-, 15- or 20-year mark. 

So what do we do? Let’s celebrate the research and technology that have allowed women and men diagnosed with breast cancer to live longer, with less problems and side effects. Let’s continue to advocate for annual mammograms and monthly BSE. Let’s grow closer to our families that have supported us and the community that has fought for us. Let’s continue to be the best we can possibly be and achieve that dream of a cure—something I’m passionate about as a survivor of my mother’s breast cancer. 

For more information about breast cancer, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website here.