October’s Pink Ribbons
October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month. While all the sponsored walks, public service announcements, pink ribbon tie clips and donations certainly help encourage awareness of the disease, early screenings, public education and funding for breast cancer research, there remains a surprising and significant chasm in public understanding between the reality of breast cancer, breast cancer treatment and breast cancer research.
The Numbers Affected
Research has shown that breast cancer accounts for one-third of all cancers diagnosed in women. Well over 200,000 women are expected to be diagnosed with the disease this year. Patients aren’t the only ones affected by the disease. These women are our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, wives and grandmothers. Almost everyone has a stake in finding a cure for breast cancer.
Breast Cancer Research & Common Misunderstandings
Money raised during fundraising and charity efforts is either used to fund programs to help start and maintain early detection and education programs for women or goes into research efforts. Common misconceptions regarding cancer research include not appreciating the enormous amount of time and work between beginning an experiment and even determining if the results are worth further study. Other research projects can provide new information about breast cancer cells and their behaviors, yet years of research are still required to determine if this data is applicable to medical treatment. Finally, research results reported in the press commonly fail to explain that the study is still in the experimental stages, open to only a very few patients and years away—if ever—from approval by the Federal Drug Administration for common use.
What Science Knows & What Medicine Uses
Cumulative medical histories and many longitudinal studies (those in which a large group of people are followed for changes in their health, sometimes for up to two decades) have allowed scientists and medicine to identify known factors associated with higher risks for the development of breast cancer. Some of these associations or risk factors have changed the frequency or methods of breast cancer screening in certain subpopulations of women and have a direct effect on monitoring for disease development. Certain types of breast cancer that tend to be genetic mean that some women with significant family histories choose to have bilateral mastectomies as a preventative measure before ever being diagnosed with the disease. The American Cancer Society website has extensive information on known risk factors.
Medicine also adopts new technology and techniques for treatment of breast cancers as soon as approval is available. New surgical techniques, different types of chemotherapeutic agents and newer forms of radiations, such as proton therapy, are all in use and demonstrating positive results.
What Science Knows & What Medicine is Watching
Recent findings have been promising. Scientific researchers have recently completed mapping the genetic code of 21 different types of breast cancers. This is more than an exercise in classification. This information not only “helps scientists understand how [the] disease evolves” but also “raises hopes of earlier diagnosis and better treatment.” Dr. Charles Perou’s federally assisted research has succeeded in identifying “genetically distinct types of the cancer.” Each type appears to have identifying and specific genetic changes that can provide information as to what turns a cancer “on.”
More Than Pink Ribbons
Support for breast cancer research needs to remain a priority, despite the sometimes-long years between experimental findings and effective therapies available to patients. Breast cancer survivors of today have the researchers of two or more decades ago to thank.
This guest post is contributed by Lindsey Harper Mac. She can be reached at Harpermac11 (a) gmail.com or @harpermac11.