Why rising breast cancer rates are not as scary as they sound
Even before I was 14, I had this crazy, irrational fear that I had breast cancer. I learned about it in some health class and was convinced I had it. Yes, I've been a hypochondriac my whole life.
The first time I went to a well-woman exam I was sure they were going to take one look at what I had going on and see something abnormal. I've gone to several of these appointments since and they've yet to find anything, but my fear is still very real. I'm 26, and I've thought about getting a mammogram just to be sure.
But that doesn't make me crazy. We're seeing powerful women make bold decisions about their bodies and cancer before they even have a formal cancer diagnosis. Women aren't waiting for cancer to come to them. They are taking charge, eliminating the risk, getting second and third opinions and it often stems from emotional scars left from seeing our mothers and friends and sisters fight cancer, from not wanting to put our loved ones through the same thing and wanting to take charge of our own lives. And that doesn't make anyone crazy.
Doctors are concerned about over-treatment due to these big, brave decisions women are making. But when you read headlines like "Breast cancer cases expected increase by 50 percent by 2030" it makes you me want to run to the doctor and tell them I don't want boobs anymore. They aren't that big anyway. My boyfriend will love me without them. Just take them off. I'll get fake ones. Bye, breasts. Hasta la vista.
But experts like Dr. Jean Simpson, a breast pathologist, would say "Whoa, Nelly. Not so fast."
In her own words, Dr. Simpson, who is also the chair of the College of American Pathologists' cancer committee, points out, "It’s important to keep breast cancer risk statistics in perspective. We know that the U.S. population is aging and that older age is a risk factor for breast cancer. New forecasts of an increase in the number of predicted cases seems, at least in part, to be a logical progression of these two things over time. Women should remember that an individual’s risk of developing breast cancer is not necessarily greater than it was before.”
And she's right. The new research (because yes, science is actually predicting a 50 percent increase of breast cancer cases in the U.S. by 2030) was based on three main factors, and none that say your individual risk is increasing.
- That people are living longer in general
- More women aging from the baby boom puts more women in the highest-risk age category simply because there are more women
- Many of the diagnoses, though increasing, are extremely treatable and are not life threatening
Simpson tells me, "There is a huge spectrum of invasive cancers and a wide range of prognoses, but survival rates over five and 10 years are now very high. In some ways, many forms of breast cancer can come to resemble a chronic, treatable disease in terms of how they affect a woman’s life. Women often live very full lives for many years while undergoing treatment.”
So, if and when you ever get that ugly, scary diagnosis, take a deep breath and know that you have time to figure out the best option for you. And get more than one opinion. Ask hard questions and understand that sometimes "you have breast cancer" also means "we can treat this — no problem."
Does that make breast cancer less scary? Not really. But does it lighten the blow. A little.
More: If you or a friend are facing a recent diagnosis, here's how to to read your pathology report so you can discuss and make informed decisions with your doctor.