FX Excursions

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Survival Instincts

Oct 1, 2006
2006 / October 2006

Breast cancer. It’s a fearful diagnosis for women, one that I came close to myself after I discovered a lump in my right breast. I underwent a needle aspiration, a breast biopsy and removal of the lump. I consider myself lucky because the biopsy showed only fibrocystic breast disease, which is a benign growth of cells.

But I did believe I had breast cancer when my surgeon called with the results of the needle aspiration: “atypical cells.” (“Atypical cells” to a healthcare provider means possible cancer.) I was relieved when the final lab results came back benign. Now I get a mammogram yearly and perform a breast self-examination monthly.

For women, breast cancer is second only to lung cancer as a cause of cancer deaths. Though it’s less common, men also are targeted by the disease. In the United States, more than 200,000 women and about 1,500 men were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005.

The odds of surviving breast cancer are much higher than they were 30 years ago, given the vast improvements in technology, treatment and research. The best way to beat it is to know your risk factors and the symptoms. Prevention and early detection are life savers.

Remember that a number of factors other than breast cancer can cause your breast to change in size and feel. In addition to the natural changes that occur during pregnancy and menstrual cycle, other common non-cancerous (benign) conditions include fibrocystic breast disease, fluid-filled cysts, fibroadenomas (solid non-cancerous tumors), and infections such as mastitis, trauma and calcium deposits.

Facing a cancer diagnosis can be emotionally draining, but you can overcome some of the fear with facts. Surround yourself with supportive family members and friends, and then work on finding a cancer specialist and surgeon with whom you feel comfortable. Make a list of questions to ask, and take the time to find the right doctors and treatment for you.

Make sure the hospital with which your doctor is affiliated has a full-service, accredited cancer center on site. Cancer centers make it convenient for patients to see their doctors, have blood drawn and undergo chemotherapy and radiation.

Once you’ve determined what course of treatment you will seek, and you’ve researched your legal rights as well as your company’s policy regarding medical leave, you will need to tell your boss of your diagnosis. Diagnosed with breast cancer, you are covered under the American Disability Act and the Family & Medical Leave Act. Still, work can be cathartic in the face of a medical crisis. Some women choose to take leave as necessary; perhaps schedule chemotherapy or radiation treatments in the morning, then work from home that afternoon. If your doctor approves and you feel up to focusing on work, you may want to discuss a flexible work schedule.

Once you make the transition from breast cancer patient to breast cancer survivor, you might consider volunteering to “pay it forward.” Other women diagnosed with breast cancer will benefit from your strength and find solace in your survival story.

Another way to help others affected by breast cancer is by donating to an established research organization exploring new treatments. To make the greatest impact, research which organizations put the most funding toward medical research and the least toward operational expenses. That way, our daughters and granddaughters will have an even better chance of beating breast cancer. For more information, visit www.breastcancer.org and www.komen.org.

Risk Factors

Risk factors predispose the development of breast cancer, but in most cases, doctors can’t pinpoint what causes it. Researchers are focusing on newer measures that may reduce your risks. In the meantime, keep in mind that having one risk or even several does not necessarily mean you will get the disease. Beyond being a woman — by far the greatest risk factor for breast cancer — here are some other risk factors:
Age (risk increases as we get older)
Personal and family history
Childhood/early adulthood exposure to radiation
Race (Caucasian women have higher incidences of breast cancer)
Prolonged exposure to estrogen (birth-control pills and hormone therapy)
Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke
Precancerous tissue changes
Excessive alcohol use (more than one drink per day)


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