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New York City
November 2002

Keys to Beating Breast Cancer: Awareness & Education
By Marie Holmes

On the eve of New York City’s annual Race for the Cure in Central Park, a fundraiser so successful that it has practically become a national event, women gathered at the Hotel Pierre on Manhattan’s East Side to hear about recent developments in the treatment of breast cancer from speakers representing non-profit, surgical, pharmaceutical and financial perspectives.

In the fight against breast cancer, it seems, the two most powerful weapons are education and money.

Salomon Smith Barney, which hosted the luncheon, presented an achievement award to Amy S. Langer, Executive Director of the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations (NABCO), a national information and education service (the Komen Foundation, in comparison, focuses mainly on fundraising for scientific research). A 17-year breast cancer survivor herself, Langer, like other speakers that afternoon, drew the parallels between cancer survivors and New Yorkers after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

“Breast cancer survivors tend to go through phases,” said Langer. “Dread, panic, disbelief, anxiety, and finally, I think, the emergence of a tremendous sense of strength and belonging, even though this is the last club you had wanted to join.”

Citing the successes of women’s fight against the deadly disease—the most common form of cancer among U.S. women—Langer reported that the government now devotes $700 million a year to breast cancer research, significantly more than a decade or so back, when women began to realize that government funding for their health concerns seemed woefully inadequate in comparison to other research grant monies.

“Seventy percent of women are now involved in screening,” said Langer, “but for us the clock is ticking. Every three minutes a woman in this country is diagnosed with breast cancer.”

Such statistics paint a bleak picture, yet Langer assured the audience that there was reason for hope, both for finding a cure and because “it’s a different breast cancer than it was for our mothers.” Public awareness, she said, has helped to alleviate the shame and isolation from patients’ experiences.

Dr. Rache Simmons, Professor of Surgery at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, also presented hopeful news about new advances in surgical treatments. Simmons and her colleagues, who use a simple needle biopsy to diagnose breast cancer, are currently investigating a similar treatment for cancerous growths. A needle, no larger than a matchstick, is inserted into the breast, where tiny wires then attach to the tumor, destroying it with heat. Another promising procedure uses the same technology to freeze the tumor, destroying the cells’ structure but leaving the DNA inside the body, providing a vaccine-like protection against recurrence. Simmons reported that this technique has already been used to treat benign tumors, “and it works beautifully.”

Due to advances in screening–only 2 percent of patients are diagnosed with end-stage breast cancer, with 70 percent diagnosed in stages 0 or 1–fewer and fewer women (20-25 percent, according to Simmons) are faced with the prospect of mastectomy, which can, as Simmons illustrated with a slide, have horribly disfiguring results. The skin-sparing and areola-sparing mastectomies that Simmons regularly performs improve cosmetic outcomes by leaving plastic surgeons with a mold to reconstruct the breast’s original shape, often with fat and skin taken from the abdomen.

Simmons photographic evidence seemed to persuade the audience. One patient, only 25 years old when she was diagnosed, had obviously been out in her bathing suit after the surgeries; the photograph revealed her tan lines. Simmons strongly believes that “a reconstruction is important for a woman of any age.”

Despite advances in treatment and surgical procedures, early detection is still a woman’s best protection. NABCO recommends that all women over the age of 20 have their breasts examined by a doctor or nurse every year and do monthly self-breast exams; women over 40 should have a mammogram each year as well as an annual breast exam by a doctor or nurse and should continue to examine their breasts every month. Visit www.nabco.org for more information or to sign up for their free e-mail reminder service for mammograms and breast exams.#

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