If you’ve recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s normal to be frightened. But there’s plenty of room for hope: Dramatic progress in breast cancer care over the past two decades has significantly improved outcomes, even as the disease remains the most common form of cancer for women in the US besides skin cancer.
I encourage women to participate in their care. Know your family history and genetic risks. The incidence of breast cancer rises with age, and symptoms can extend beyond lumps in your breasts. Most importantly, find the right course of treatment.
Here are three more things women should know about breast cancer.
The first thing I tell a woman with breast cancer is, “You’re going to be OK.”
Breast cancer incidence and mortality have declined since 1990, which means more women are living longer. We’ve made progress on all fronts, including diagnostic technologies, genetic testing, surgical techniques and other treatments.
The diagnosis may be terrifying, but the cure rate is impressive. So try your best not to panic!
Only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are hereditary, but genetics can still play a role — so knowing your family history can help you and your doctor to assess your risks. We can use certain genetic tests to help identify the best treatment for women with breast cancer. For example, there are tests that can reveal if you have a hormone-positive breast cancer. Knowing that, we may be able to treat cancer more strategically, with a more individualized approach.
Beyond genetic factors, consider your habits and lifestyle. There are factors you can improve and change that are linked to breast cancer risk, such as quitting smoking, reducing stress, eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise.
There are, of course, certain risk factors that you can’t change or control, such as your age (cancer risk increases as you get older), your reproductive history (you may be at greater risk if you got your first period before age 12 and/or went through menopause after age 55) and previous treatment with radiation therapy. While you can’t change those things, you can and should speak to your doctor about them.
The more you can learn about your options for breast cancer treatment, the more empowered you’ll feel.
One example is reconstructive surgery after breast-cancer surgery. You have options, including not having further procedures.
Another choice I offer is oncoplastic reconstruction. This combines the most current plastic surgery techniques with breast surgical oncology to minimize the effects of radiation on breast contours. With this approach, I move surrounding tissue around like flower petals (called oncoplastic tissue rearrangement) and join them together with dissolvable stitches to cover the incisions. Afterward, you would never know that breast cancer surgery had occurred.
There are more surgical options you can discuss with your doctor that take advantage of the most recent technology and tools. For example, I can now identify the precise location of a tumor, making it possible to hide a scar for example, at your bra line, under your breast, in your arm pit area or around your nipple. Whether you’re wearing a bathing suit or a gown for a special occasion, your scar won’t be visible.
Whatever you choose should help you feel better emotionally, sexually, psychologically and physically.
Melissa Fana, MD, is a breast surgical oncologist who focuses on malignant and benign breast diseases. A member of the Northwell Cancer Institute, she practices at Plainview Hospital.