Breast Cancer Awareness Month is celebrated annually in October. According to MUSC Hollings Cancer Research Center, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, increasing most individual’s chances of being impacted by the disease in some way.
“The national recognition of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month is amazing. Everyone from high schoolers to NFL players understand the importance of the pink ribbon. Designating October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month allows us as a society to open up a conversation about breast cancer risk, breast health and screening. We have created a way to advocate for our mothers, sisters, and friends to have mammograms and talk about any concerns or struggles they are having,” said Andrea Abbott MD, MSCR, FACS, the Surgical Oncologist and Assistant Professor of Surgery at MUSC.
Abbott said that although October is a month of awareness, breast cancer is an issue that people should be concerned about all year long. Women of average breast cancer risk or no genetic mutation or strong family history, are recommended to start mammogram screenings at the age of 40.
Dr. Jennifer Beatty, the founder of the Breast Place, a breast practice in Charleston has been working as a breast surgeon with East Cooper Medical Center (ECMC) since 2009 when she got out of the United States Navy. In the military, Beatty was a surgeon in the Marine Corps in Iraq. When she moved to Charleston she started a breast center at the Navy Hospital at the base in North Charleston. From there, she started practicing locally and opened the Breast Place in October 2011.
Beatty operates her private practice and conducts surgeries at hospitals in the area. She explained she conducts a lot of surgeries at ECMC, working with the plastic surgeons to remove breast cancer and recreate the breasts. Together the physicians perform lumpectomies and mastectomies with natural reconstruction as well as nipple sparing.
“Patients who find a breast mass should be evaluated. They shouldn’t be blown off. They shouldn’t be told it’s hormones. They should be told that it’s a breast mass you need to do a work up,” Beatty explained.
Beatty said that the American Cancer Society (ACS) and American Society of Breast Surgeons both recommend women with a family history of breast cancer begin mammogram screenings at the age of 30. Also, once someone begins mammograms, they should return once a year for an exam and imaging. She explained that early detection is ideal and it’s recommended all masses and lumps be taken seriously.
Beatty explained the Breast Place has a high risk breast clinic seeing patients ranging from ages 20 to 80 for biannual imaging and breast exams. Through this clinic she said they catch 92% of breast cancer at an early stage. She encourages everyone to conduct self- breast exams once a month, due to the fact that a mammogram can miss 20% of breast tissue cancers.
“Breast exams should be done in front of the mirror, you should put your arms above your head so you can see any indenting or abnormality or unevenness in your nipple. Then to feel the whole breast tissue. If you find a mass you can ask your doctor but if they just blow it off, I would make sure you find someone who’s going to take you seriously” Beatty said.
Abbott explained that there are important things to do what you can to stay healthy, such as regular exercise, maintain a healthy diet and weight, avoid excess alcohol and quit smoking.
“Bring any concerns you have about breast changes: skin changes, mass, nipple discharge, nipple inversion, itching of the nipple to the attention of your physician. If you are diagnosed with breast cancer my advice is to share the news with someone you are comfortable talking to and consider taking that person with you to your appointments. Having another person to be there for support and to listen to the doctors and take notes may help you remember things about your treatment later when you are at home,” Abbott said.
Abbott said that the process can be an overwhelming experience, so having the right care team is important and it is okay to get a second opinion for a treatment that’s been recommended. She also explained some of the major advances in breast cancer right now are being seen with immunotherapy. These are drugs that help the immune system fight cancer.
“Previously, immunotherapy has been shown to improve survival in patients with certain types of lung cancer and melanoma. Recently, the first immunotherapy drug was FDA approved for a certain type of triple negative breast cancer. At MUSC we have two clinical trials open using immunotherapy. Many researchers at Hollings Cancer Center are doing pre-clinical studies that we hope will develop the next generation of immunotherapy,” Abbott said.
Beatty also said that the Breast Place has a study open to the public for DNA testing related to detecting early signs of breast cancer. She emphasized that breast cancer can travel through both the female and male lines in a family.
“There is a stigma or idea that a lot of doctors don’t feel that breast cancer can travel on the paternal line, which is the father’s line, which is completely not true,” Beatty said.
When it comes to diagnosis, Beatty encourages patients to see breast cancer as a bump in the road that they can overcome. She encourages patients to ask tons of questions and consult with physicians. As for family and friends, she and Abbott both encourage them to offer love and support.
“As a friend or family member of a loved one diagnosed with breast cancer, I think the most important thing you can offer is to listen to what the individual needs. Some people want to share and get comfort from support groups and church and sharing their experience. Other people prefer to stay private about their diagnosis and may not want to talk about their cancer. Asking the question, ‘What can I do?’ May be met with silence as it can be hard to ask for help,” Abbott said.
Abbott explained everyone processes diagnosis differently and it’s okay to be sad or angry and to still smile and laugh. She said family and friends that want to do nice gestures such as organizing meals, helping with childcare, gift baskets that have things like candles, lotion, magazines, art books, journals or even a simple note or text that says you are thinking about them can mean a lot.
There are several local events benefiting the ACS and research for Breast Cancer Awareness during the month of October. The ACS’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer of Charleston walk will be held on Sunday, Oct. 27 from 2:30-5 p.m. at the North Charleston Riverfront Park, 1001 Everglades Dr., North Charleston. For more information about the event visit bit.ly/ACSCharlestonWalk.
If you would like to know more about breast cancer, visit ACS website at cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer.html.