Every three minutes, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. A person dies of breast cancer every 13 minutes. Take a look around, because the disease will affect one-eighth of the women you know.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. More than 1,000 men also get the cancer annually.
Mills senior Erin Mandeson’s mother died from breast cancer; her step-sister and her best friend are both five-year survivors. “My mother died in 1986,” Mandeson said. “She was 51, I was 24,and it was very sudden. First they said it was cancer, then they took it back. She went in with the flu in April, by October she had terminally metastasized cancer throughout her body that started in her breast,” Mandeson said.
Mills alumna Marilyn Feldman-Axelrod is a twelve-year survivor. Feldman-Axelrod said her mother was diagnosed in March of 1990, and she herself three months later in June. After two chemotherapy sessions Feldman-Axelrod had a mastectomy.
In response to her survival, Feldman-Axelrod started the Wall of Hope, Breast Cancer Survivor’s Project in order to help unite survivors throughout the country. “The Wall of Hope is not taking it [cancer] so seriously but celebrating life.”
Faculty administrative assistant for the letters departments and executive assistant for the dean of letters, Tonianne Nemeth has twice survived breast cancer.
“I found a lump in my breast in February of 1989,” Nemeth said. Her doctor ordered a mammogram and it came back positive.
Nemeth had two surgeries, the initial biopsy and a lumpectomy in addition to seven months of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. In addition, she was put on Tamoxifen, a commonly used anti-estrogen pill.
“The first question you ask is ‘why me?’,” Nemeth said. “My husband was of the mindset that we would beat cancer-from the beginning-so with that kind of determination, I had to fight.”
According to the American Cancer Society all women are at risk for breast cancer. The two greatest risk factors are being a woman and growing older. A U.S. General Accounting Office study said the known factors for breast cancer explain less than 30 percent of the cases that occur each year.
The remaining 70 percent of the unexplained cases are attributed to environmental causes by many Bay Area breast cancer organizations.
The known links to breast cancer according to the same study are a family history of breast cancer, early menstruation, late menopause, late age of first pregnancy, childlessness, and obesity in postmenopausal women.
Early menstruation, late menopause and late age of first pregnancy all cause higher levels of estrogen. The longer a woman is exposed to estrogen, the greater chance she will get breast cancer.
“I come from a very large family and there was no history of breast cancer so I wasn’t very worried,” Nemeth said. “My pregnancy probably accelerated the cancer.”
The larger breast cancer organizations such as the ACS focus on early detection and finding a cure. According to the ACS’s annual financial report, they raised 831 million in 2001, and spent the largest chunk of it (21 percent) on prevention.
The ACS advocates that early detection is the key to survival, and argues that early detection will save lives because it increases the likeliness that the cancer has not spread.
Both Nemeth and Feldman-Axelrod found their breast cancer through self-exams, although both believe in regular mammograms, which have been a source of recent controversy.
A group of Danish researchers recently found that there were no benefits to mammograms. In response, a number of health organizations, including the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, reviewed the research and found that there was insufficient evidence to discount the Danish researcher’s conclusions.
One of the controversial issues surrounding breast cancer is the treatment options. The most common treatments are chemotherapy, radiation and drugs.
Chemotherapy, radiation and drugs are what people will tell you will cure you, said Axelrod. “No one I know-of the 1,500 survivors-would recommend the treatments and tell you they’re fun. If I ever got cancer again, I wouldn’t use radiation or chemo,” she added.
Nemeth agreed that chemotherapy was difficult, even though she worked while receiving the treatments. “After every chemo treatment I said I wouldn’t go back for the next one,” Nemeth said. “You do what you have to, but it’s extremely hard.”
Mandeson also has reservations against the traditional treatment options. “Chemo and the traditional therapies scare the hell out of me,” Mandeson said. “My best friend Judy has horrible [radiation] scars all over her body. I have seen in the people around me how the chemo contributed to the deterioration of their health, more so than the cancer itself.”
“Breast Cancer Action believes that all cancer patients should be offered information about all clinical trials, whether sponsored by government of private industry, in the form of a Clinial Trials Directory,” according to Breast Cancer Action’s “compassionate access to investigational therapies” policy.
“My mom took a pretty alternative approach to her treatment,” Edwards said. “She started radiation, but didn’t finish.”
Feldman-Axelrod said her mastectomy was hard. “How can I be afraid of me? This is a part of me [the cancerous breast], not a pretty part, but a part.”
Nemeth, who had a mastectomy after the breast cancer came back four years later, said, “it was major crappy to look in the mirror at a flat, ugly seven-inch scar where my breast used to be, but I learned that I am more than just a breast.”
Many of the organizations believe a cure will be found. Breast Cancer Action advocates for a true cure with treatments that don’t nearly kill people or cause other diseases, according to an August document.
“Cutting off body parts or getting radiation doesn’t seem to help,” Feldman-Axelrod said. “If we were ahead on this [war on cancer] there would be less. We are not winning. We are successful in uniting breast cancer survivors and helping each other believe that cancer will not be the end.”