Lynn Redgrave, an actress well-known for her famous family in addition to her roles in movies like Georgy Girl and Gods and Monsters, and appeared in recent television episodes of Law & Order and Ugly Betty, died today after a seven-year fight against breast cancer.
It is the diagnosis you never want to get; the sickness other people have. But for more than 192,000 women with recorded cases in 2009, it is a very real battle. It is commonly in the news, but how much do you really know about breast cancer?
Our bodies constantly are growing and developing new cells. When this process goes wrong, the buildup of extra cells can turn into a mass of tissue called a growth, tumor, or lump. Breast cancer is caused by this over-production of cells that occurs in the breast tissue. Many growths in the breast can be benign (not cancer), while some may be malignant (cancer).
Symptoms could include thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area, a change in the shape or size of one or both breasts, puckering in breast skin, nipples pointing inward toward the breast, or an unexpected discharge from the nipple (ex., blood).
When you visit your gynecologist, he or she often will perform a breast examination, however, you should also be checking periodically for lumps or other abnormalities in your breasts. When pregnant or during your period, breast tissue can become “lumpy” because of hormones, so suspected growths found during those times may not be cause for alarm, but still should be checked out by your doctor.
If you suspect you may have something wrong with your breasts, it is important to discuss it with your doctor to assure early detection and treatment. Some questions you may want to ask might be:
- How is cancer diagnosed? Your doctor may order an imaging test such as a mammogram, sonogram, or MRI to get a picture of the breast tissue. As needed, the doctor may want to perform a biopsy to draw fluid from a lump, check changed skin, or remove tissue from the breast to check for cancerous cells. There are also hormonal tests that can be performed to verify if certain hormones or protein is present in the abnormal cells indicating possible ways to treat the cancer.
- What type of breast cancer do I have? Breast cancer typically starts in the lining of the breast ducts (ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS), or in the duct lobes (lobular carcinoma in situ, or LCIS). However, it also can be present in the breast tissue.
- So, I’ve been diagnosed. Now what? If diagnosed, the doctor probably will perform a CT scan or biopsy to try to determine the stage of your cancer. Staging, which can range from 0 (DCIS) to 4 (metastatic invasive breast cancer) depending on severity is determined by the size of the cancer, and whether nearby tissues and organs have been affected.
- How is breast cancer treated? Your doctor may perform surgery to remove a lump or tumor. You also may receive hormone, radiation, chemo, or something that’s called targeted therapy. You likely will be referred to a specialist such as an oncologist for some of these treatment options. There also are some non-traditional forms of treatment such as acupuncture.
- What is the long-term risk? As with most conditions, early detection and treatment is key for slowing progression of the disease, and giving the best possible prognosis. However, if not all cancer is treated, or not treated enough following removal of tumors, the cancer can recur at a later time or spread to a different part of the body if it breaks from the initial site and enters the lymphatic system.
- Should I get a second opinion? It is your choice, but you should be your own best advocate. If you want a second opinion, ask for one! Many doctors welcome a second opinion contrary to what you might think. Many insurance companies may cover additional testing performed by a different doctor if your doctor requests it. Some insurance companies even require a second opinion. The short delay taken in getting all the information to allow you to feel more confident and in control of your health in most cases will not be detrimental to your treatment.
- What if the doctor suggests I have a mastectomy? If you decide to have a mastectomy, you may opt for either breast reconstruction or prosthesis (breast form worn inside your bra). Discuss choices with your doctor to find the solution that’s right for you.
- Is there a cure for breast cancer? While there is no definitive cure for breast cancer, ongoing research has brought great strides in treatment and detection of breast cancer particularly in the 0 to 3rd stages. Stage 4 cancer can be treated, however there is less chance of getting rid of the disease.
- Is there any research I can do on my own and what sources would you recommend? A cancer diagnosis can be scary, frustrating, and depressing. Your doctor can suggest their reputable web sites and support groups for obtaining more information and helping you cope with breast cancer.
www.cancer.org Breast Cancer
www.cancer.gov Breast Cancer
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Christine Jeffries is a writer/editor for work and at heart, and lives in a home of testosterone with her husband and two sons. Christine is interested in women’s health and promoting strong women.