With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we take a look at awareness and prevention efforts in the area, as well as advancements in the arena of breast health.
October marks National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, bringing with it a slew of charitable walks, runs and pink ribbons. This year, the annual commemoration also comes with a wave of exciting news from the science front, as recent developments in genetic typing have stimulated hopes that cancer treatment will be increasingly tailored to each woman’s individual, unique case.
Breast cancer remains sadly common—more than 35,000 women in the United States die from it each year. But increasingly, patients are discovering that a diagnosis of breast cancer is not a death sentence. New drugs and better detection strategies are slowly turning the illness into a somewhat less formidable enemy.
Genes provide new clues to cancer
Earlier this year, news headlines trumpeted a remarkable breakthrough in breast cancer research: Genetic analysis was allowing scientists to classify breast cancer into one of four subtypes.
Dr. Generosa Grana, director of the Cooper Cancer Institute, says the story was the culmination of many years of behind-the-scenes research.
“We know now that we should not be focusing on breast cancer based solely on size and lymph node involvement; instead, we should be looking at the genetic profile of the cancers to help us predict outcomes and select treatment,” she says. Scientists are hoping that by understanding the genetic components of each woman’s cancer, they can better predict the way the cancer will behave. That should allow them to fine-tune their recommendations for treatment, whether it will involve surgery, drug therapy, or both.
“The science is not quite there in terms of helping us select treatment, but it is on its way, and that is very exciting,” says Grana, noting that a woman’s overall health and fitness will also help determine the best course of care.
Mammography: When is it right for you?
For many years, the American Cancer Society has recommended that women receive an annual mammogram beginning at age 40. Mammograms have been an essential tool in detecting breast cancer, and in finding the disease in its early stages before it spreads to other parts of the body.
However, the procedure is not without controversy. In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued new guidelines that called for women of average risk to begin receiving mammograms at age 50. Members of the task force argued that in the 40-to-49 age group, the risk of false positives, which may bring about unnecessary breast biopsies, outweighed the potential benefits.
However, many local practitioners still want to see their patients receive a baseline mammogram at age 40, with yearly screening mammograms after that. Local doctors say it’s best to talk to your own practitioner to discuss the best schedule for you, as family history and other health factors may influence their recommendations.
The technology behind mammography is evolving rapidly, enhancing the potential for early detection of breast cancer. South Jersey Radiology Associates, with nine locations, uses digital mammography on all patients.
“For the mammographer, it’s far easier on the eyes to look at digital images,” says Catherine Piccoli, director of women’s imaging at SJRA. “We see the breast much better, particularly out toward the skin, so it increases the chances of early detection.” Piccoli added that digital images are easier to store than film images, giving doctors an efficient way to compare a woman’s mammograms from one year to the next.
South Jersey Radiology Associates is also the first practice in the area to offer 3D mammography, also called tomosynthesis. This new technology is expected to continue to improve the success rates of screening mammograms, Piccoli says.
“We’ve had the experience that small cancers that you cannot see on a two-dimensional scan become evident in 3D,” Piccoli said. “You can see lesions that would previously have been covered up.”
Help from the community
The Central and South Jersey Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure provides extensive outreach efforts in the fight against breast cancer, from fundraising and public awareness to grants for a wide variety of support organizations.
As the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors, the local affiliate is led by a two-time survivor herself—Executive Director Nancy K. Healey, who was first diagnosed at age 36. Today, she uses her strength to help the organization fight to cure breast cancer and relieve the pain and anxiety felt by patients.
“With the biopsy that confirmed my cancer, in addition to being a daughter, wife and mother, I received a new title—breast cancer survivor,” she said recently in an open letter to supporters, whose donations fund screening initiatives for high-risk women and even a free mammogram van that travels through the region. “Early detection saved my life and working for an organization that provides vital breast health education and access to care for underserved women is a source of pride for me.”
Komen’s quest involves making sure all women in Central and South Jersey’s 13 counties receive access to mammograms, including low-income women and those without insurance. To that end, it has granted $1.4 million during this past year alone to 25 organizations throughout the region, funding a wide range of breast cancer support services.
Among Komen’s beneficiaries is South Jersey Family Medical Centers. Since 2006, the centers have received more than $250,000 in grants from Komen, which have helped the group secure mammograms for underserved women, including Hispanic and Haitian migrant women who work on South Jersey farms.
“We help them make appointments if there is a language barrier; we provide transportation; and we help with interpretation,” says Cherie Arias, the centers’ health education and migrant outreach manager. “We have health promoters who speak Spanish and Creole, and that has helped build trust and a sense of understanding.”
In the coming year, the South Jersey community will gain another resource in the fight against cancer. Currently under construction in Camden, the new site of the Cooper Cancer Institute is scheduled to open in fall 2013. Cooper spokeswoman Melissa Maycott says the institute will have increased meeting space so that Cooper physicians, nurses and staff can offer a wider range of education programs and support groups. The new center will include the latest technology, including two linear accelerators, used in radiation therapy.
What’s more, says Beth Rachkis, director of marketing and communications for the Cooper Cancer Institute, the new center will bring all the elements of cancer care under one roof, enabling a multidisciplinary approach to treating the disease. Currently, most outpatients visit different Cooper sites for surgery, radiation, and other medical needs.
“In the new building, a patient will be able to see her surgeon and her radiation oncologist on the same day,” Rachkis says. “If she has questions about the different aspects of her care, her doctors will be able to work together and help answer those questions,” which all leads to making the experience just a little bit easier for a woman facing this frightening battle.
But with all these resources available, she is not alone.
Cooper Cancer Institute
Serving South Jersey
1 (800) 8-COOPER
The Central and South Jersey Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure
2 Princess Road, Suite D
South Jersey Family Medical Centers
Serving South Jersey
South Jersey Radiology Associates
Serving South Jersey
Published (and copyrighted) in the Art of Living Well pull-out section of Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 8 (October, 2012).
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