National Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Disease has wide-reaching impact
Arrington: ‘Cancer is going to affect each and every one of us in some way, shape or form in our lives.’
Are you reading this article in a lecture hall? While eating lunch in Russell House? Walking down Greene Street on the way to your next class?
Look around you. Notice all the women.
232,340 — estimated new cases of invasive breast cancer in U.S. women to be diagnosed in 2013
39,620 — U.S. women expected to die from breast cancer in 2013
2.9 million — U.S. women with a history of breast cancer who were alive on Jan. 1, 2012.
12.3 percent, or 1 in 8 — lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer for American women
34 percent — decrease in breast cancer death rates among U.S. women from 1990 to 2010
89 percent — five-year relative survival rate for women diagnosed with breast cancer, based on the most recent data
Source: American Cancer Society
Now realize this: An eighth of them will likely battle breast cancer in their lifetime. Chances are, you or someone you know have been or will be affected by the disease, which is expected to claim around 40,000 lives this year alone, according to the American Cancer Society.
“It’s going to affect every college-aged woman, whether she personally has breast cancer or she knows someone who has breast cancer,” said Dr. Amanda Arrington, a board–certified surgical oncologist in the School of Medicine. “One in eight women, you know, if you look at a lecture hall with 50 women in it, it’s going to affect six women in that room directly, and everyone else indirectly because they know that woman.”
Be your own advocate
Arrington owes her career path to her grandmother’s experience with breast cancer.
She remembers her father’s mother, Edna Arrington, as a stoic individual, a hardworking country woman and single mother whose husband died young.
Like most country folks, Arrington said, her grandmother rarely went to the doctor. It wasn’t until she was at the point of pain from a softball–sized tumor in her breast that she, with embarrassment, visited the family’s local doctor. Arrington said she was shocked, then, when the doctor told the family there were no treatment options for her.
“It really did impact me when he said, ‘Oh, go get your affairs in order. You’re not going to survive,’” Arrington said.
But there was treatment to be offered at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. Arrington’s grandmother fought the disease for nine months before her death.
Her grandmother’s battle with breast cancer taught Arrington the importance of being your own advocate for your health, she said. And it inspired her to become a healthcare advocate for others in their own fights.
“Sitting with her in her chemotherapy treatments and knowing that people who do not have the income, number one, or the transportation to get to their doctors appointments, places that don’t have the right doctors or (don’t) have the doctors with the right training — there’s a lot of Americans like that,” Arrington said. “So that’s kind of why I wanted to go into medicine.”
Awareness is key
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and awareness is one of the keys to successfully beating the disease, Arrington said.
“All people should be very aware of their own bodies,” Arrington said. “You have to know whether there are changes. There’s no tumor marker in your blood that we could test for breast cancer. There’s no other big light bulb moments in breast cancer other than your self breast exams and mammogram.”
Breast cancer is hormonally driven and can affect anyone — men included. Most of the risk factors are unavoidable, including family history and lifetime estrogen exposure. But factors like smoking, obesity and lack of exercise are under individuals’ control, Arrington said.
While ACS statistics show 79 percent of new breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women over 50, young women can begin taking steps to increase their awareness of their own health and boost their chances of early detection later in life, Arrington said. Regular monthly breast exams are key to noticing critical changes, Arrington said.
“It might not mean a lot now. But when you’re 40 or 45 and you’ve got that routine down and you could pick up that early breast cancer [sign], it means everything in the world to that one woman who did it all that time,” Arrington said.
Arrington said she’s seen a “hyperawareness” of breast cancer in the country.
Everyone from Yoplait to the NFL promotes pink products and raising funds for research, and high–profile celebrities like Angelina Jolie have brought recent attention to the disease.
Awareness is important, Arrington said, but it can also mean a heightened anxiety among women who fear their chances of developing breast cancer.
“We have to be super aware of our own healthcare,” Arrington said. “We can’t avoid things that pop up and we think, ‘Oh, it’ll just go away next month.’ But it also doesn’t mean that every woman needs to have both of her breasts removed early in life so that they don’t get breast cancer.
“Just be cognizant. Be aware of it. Support research. All in all, cancer is going to affect each and every one of us in some way, shape or form in our lives.”