Breast Cancer—What to Hope, How to Cope
CONCHITA had none of the classic risk factors.* She was 40 years old, healthy, and had no family history of breast cancer. Her regular mammogram had shown nothing abnormal. But one day while examining her breasts in the shower, she felt a lump. It turned out to be cancer. Conchita and her husband sat numbly while the doctor explained her options.
In times past, a doctor would tell a woman with breast cancer that her only hope lay in a radical mastectomy—a disfiguring operation that removed the breast, lymph nodes in the chest and armpit, and chest muscles. Chemotherapy or radiation treatments often prolonged the ordeal. Understandably, many dreaded the “cure” more than the disease.
The battle against breast cancer has been an ongoing struggle between the need to treat a killer aggressively and the desire to avoid needless disfigurement and painful side effects. Like Conchita, today’s breast cancer patients may have a range of treatment options.* And a steady stream of medical studies and media reports hold out hope that breakthrough treatments, predictive tests, and protective diets will finally conquer the disease.
Despite medical advances, however, breast cancer remains a leading cause of female cancer death.* The industrialized countries of North America and Western Europe have high incidences of cancer, but numbers are rising in Asia and Africa, which have historically had lower incidences. Moreover, death rates among those diagnosed in Asia and Africa are higher. Why? “Early detection is negligible,” said a doctor in Africa. “Most patients come to us when they are already in an advanced state.”
Risk increases with age. Some 80 percent of cases are in women over 50. But the good news is that breast cancer is one of the most treatable cancers. Indeed, 97 percent of women whose early-stage breast cancer is localized are still alive five years after diagnosis. Conchita recently passed the five-year mark.
Breast Cancer Basics
As in Conchita’s case, breast cancer is often detected as a strange lump. Fortunately, though, about 80 percent of such lumps are benign, or self-contained, many simply being fluid-filled sacks called cysts.
Breast cancer begins with a renegade cell that divides uncontrollably, gradually forming a tumor. A tumor turns malignant, or cancerous, when its cells invade other tissues. Some tumors grow quickly; others may take up to ten years before they are detected.
To test Conchita for cancer, her doctor used a thin needle to take a tissue sample from the lump. It contained cancer cells. So she had surgery to remove the tumor and the surrounding breast tissue and to determine the tumor’s stage (size, type, and spread) and grade (speed of growth).
After surgery, many patients have additional treatments aimed at preventing the recurrence or spread of the cancer. Cancer cells can break away from a tumor, travel through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system, and start growing again. The spread, or metastasis, of cancer to vital organs and tissues—the brain, the liver, the bone marrow, or the lungs—is what turns the disease deadly.
Conchita underwent both radiation and chemotherapy to destroy stray cancer cells around the original site and throughout her body. Since her form of cancer fed on estrogen, she also underwent antihormonal therapy to hinder the growth of new cancers.
Advances in breast cancer treatment offer other options to patients according to their age, health, cancer history, and the individual cancer. For instance, in the case of a woman named Arlette, tests revealed her cancer before it spread beyond the milk duct. So she had a lumpectomy, which saved her breast. Alice had chemotherapy before surgery to shrink her tumor. Janice’s surgeon removed the tumor and only the sentinel lymph node, the first node into which the fluid from the tumor drains. Since it held no cancer cells, additional nodes were left intact. This reduced Janice’s risk of lymphedema, an uncomfortable swelling of the arm that can occur when many lymph nodes are removed.
Much is known about the growth of breast cancer, but a basic question continues, Why and how does breast cancer start?
The causes of breast cancer remain a puzzle. Critics say that more research is done on treatment and screening—which reap big profits—than on causes and prevention. Still, scientists have unearthed important clues. Some believe that breast cancer results from a complex, multistep process, beginning with a faulty gene that causes cells to misbehave—to divide furiously, to invade other tissue, to evade capture by immune cells, and to launch stealthy attacks on vital organs.
Where do errant genes come from? In between 5 and 10 percent of cases, women are born with genes that predispose them to breast cancer. But it seems that in many cases, healthy genes are damaged by outside agents—radiation and chemicals being among the prime suspects. Future studies may confirm these links.
Another link includes the hormone estrogen, which appears to stimulate certain breast cancers. Hence, a woman’s risk may be raised if she began menstruating very early in life or went into menopause later than normal, if she had a late first pregnancy or no pregnancy at all, or if she had hormone replacement therapy. Because fat cells produce estrogen, obesity may increase risk in postmenopausal women, whose ovaries have stopped producing hormones. Other risk factors include high levels of the hormone insulin and low levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, a condition often affecting night workers.
Are more-effective, less-traumatic treatments for breast cancer on the horizon? Researchers are developing therapies that involve using the body’s own immune system and drugs that target the molecular pathways that support cancer growth. Meanwhile, improved imaging technologies should help clinicians deliver radiation more precisely and effectively.
Scientists are also fighting on other fronts, including unlocking the mystery of metastasis, outwitting chemoresistant cancer cells, disrupting cellular-growth signals, and tailoring treatment to individual tumors.
Nevertheless, in today’s world, disease will never be eliminated and humans will continue to die. (Romans 5:12) Only our Creator can change that sad reality. But will he? The Bible answers yes! The time will come, it says, when “no resident will say: ‘I am sick.’”* (Isaiah 33:24) What a relief that will be!
Some names have been changed.
Awake! does not endorse any particular treatment.
Breast cancer in men is comparatively rare.
This promise is discussed in more detail in the Bible study aid What Does the Bible Really Teach? published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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SIGNS TO WATCH FOR
Early detection is crucial, but some studies caution that breast exams and mammograms may be less accurate in younger women, resulting in unnecessary treatment and anxiety. However, experts strongly urge women to watch for changes in their breasts and lymph nodes. Here are some signs to watch for:
● A lump or thickening anywhere in the armpit or breast
● Any discharge other than breast milk from the nipple
● Any change in the color or texture of the skin
● An abnormally pushed-in or tender nipple
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IF YOU ARE DIAGNOSED WITH BREAST CANCER
● Expect to spend a year or more focusing on treatment and recovery.
● When possible, choose competent doctors who respect your needs and beliefs.
● With your family, decide whom you will tell, and when. This will allow your friends to show their love for you and to pray with you and for you.—1 John 3:18.
● Talk with others who have had breast cancer and who will be encouraging to you.—2 Corinthians 1:7.
● Try to focus on today’s concerns, not tomorrow’s. “Never be anxious about the next day,” Jesus said, “for the next day will have its own anxieties.”—Matthew 6:34.
● Budget your energy. You need sufficient rest.
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TALKING WITH YOUR DOCTOR
● Learn the basic medical vocabulary of breast cancer.
● Before seeing your doctor, list your questions, and ask your mate or a companion to come with you to help take notes.
● If your doctor says something you do not understand, ask her to explain.
● Ask your doctor how many cases of your type she has handled.
● If possible, get a second opinion.
● If your doctors disagree, weigh their experience. Ask them to confer.
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COPING WITH SIDE EFFECTS
Side effects of some cancer treatments may include nausea, hair loss, chronic tiredness, pain, numbness or tingling in extremities, and skin reactions. The following simple steps may reduce such effects:
● Eat well to strengthen your immune system.
● Keep a log of your energy levels and your reactions to foods.
● See if medication, acupuncture, or massage lessens nausea and pain.
● Exercise moderately to increase your stamina, control your weight, and improve your immune response.*
● Rest often, but be aware that long periods in bed may increase fatigue.
● Keep your skin moist. Wear loose clothing. Bathe in warm water.
Cancer patients should consult a medical professional before starting an exercise program.
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IF A LOVED ONE HAS CANCER
How can you support a loved one who has cancer? Apply the Bible principle: “Rejoice with people who rejoice; weep with people who weep.” (Romans 12:15) Express your love and concern by means of telephone calls, letters, cards, e-mails, and brief visits. Pray together, and read comforting scriptures from the Bible. “Don’t mention those who died of cancer, but those who lived,” urges Beryl, the wife of a traveling minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Just go up and hug your friend,” advises Janice, who had a bout with cancer herself. “If she wants to talk about it, she will.” Husbands especially need to reassure their wives of their love.
“Regularly we had a cancer-free day,” recalls Geoff. “My wife was determined that her health would not become the only focus of our attention. So we decided that at regular intervals we would not talk about the cancer for a whole day. Instead, we focused on the positive aspects of our life. It was like taking a vacation from the disease.”
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On Hearing the Diagnosis
Sharon: My life changed in an instant. “This is the end,” I said.
On the Hardest Moments
Sandra: The mental anguish is worse than the treatment.
Margaret: After the second treatment, you say, “I don’t really want to do this.” But you just do it.
Arlette: We told our friends so that they could pray for us.
Jenny: Not one smile, nod, or hello went unnoticed.
On Supportive Husbands
Barbara: I decided to shave off my hair before it fell out. Colin said, “Your head is shaped so beautifully!” He made me laugh.
Sandra: We looked in the mirror together. I watched Joe’s face, and it was all OK.
Sasha: Karl would tell others, “We have cancer.”
Jenny: Geoff’s love was unending, and his spirituality was reassuring and unfailing.
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Cancer cells disobey normal growth signals by multiplying and invading other tissue
Milk duct with normal cells
Ductal carcinoma in situ
Invasive ductal cancer
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A vital part of cancer treatment is the loving support given patients by family and friends