It had been three days since my biopsy. If there was cancer they said they’d call by the end of the week. It was Friday afternoon at 4:30, and no news was good news I assured myself. Then the phone rang. “Mrs. Barker? I’m sorry to have to tell you we did find cancer cells.”
Those are words that no one ever really thinks they will hear, or ever forgets how it felt when they heard them. As the nurse told me what they knew and what they didn’t know, and gave me instructions for scheduling an MRI for the next week, I felt myself going into shock. I had breast cancer. What did that mean? How bad was it? Why had this happened to me?
According to the American Cancer Society (ACA), more than 1,600,000 men and women in the United States are diagnosed with cancer every year. In addition more than 15,000 children will get that life-changing news as well. As heart-breaking as this is, there is much to be hopeful about. Research into prevention, diagnosis, and treatment has made great strides as deaths from most forms of cancer continue to decline.
Today there are more than 13 million Americans still alive who at one time have been diagnosed with cancer. I am grateful to be among them. My cancer was the easiest to treat with the best prognosis. It’s been 2 ½ years since my diagnosis. I chose to have a lumpectomy, followed by three weeks of daily radiation, and I count my blessings every day that I am cancer free. Following treatment, the chance of my cancer reoccurring was estimated at less than five percent.
As February is National Cancer Prevention Month, what better time than today to look at some of the things we can do for ourselves and those we love in this ongoing battle against cancer? Anyone, even the healthiest among us, can develop cancer, and there are plenty of factors we can’t control. So how much more important is it to take charge of those we can?
Here are five things we should not ignore:
1. OUR BODIES—
Well this is a no-brainer, right? Our planet is becoming more and more health conscious and so most of us know that living a more healthy lifestyle can bring positive changes.
According to the ACA, approximately one-third of cancer deaths are caused by tobacco use and could all be prevented. But did you also know that it is estimated that up to another one-third of the cancer deaths in the United States are related to being overweight or obese, physical inactivity, and/or poor nutrition?
It isn’t easy to change our lifestyles, but knowing it could make a difference in our risk for certain cancers might be the motivation some of us, myself included, might need to lose some extra pounds, increase our physical activity, and make healthier food choices.
My breast cancer was found during a routine mammogram. My mother had breast cancer—and survived—when she was only 41 years old and so I am always vigilant about having this test done. Today most breast cancer is found through mammograms. I cannot repeat enough the value of having this test performed annually. The American Cancer Society recommends that all women begin having yearly mammograms once they turn forty. However, because of my strong family history (my grandmother also had breast cancer, as did my maternal aunt and two of her three daughters), my oncologist told me that my daughters should have their first mammograms when they turn 35. And if their doctors object? Time to find a new doctor. All Obamacare-approved health care plans must pay for screening mammograms. You can also find out if you qualify for a free or low-cost mammogram through The Center for Disease Control’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.
That’s something no one wants to talk about. And understandably so. The prep is not fun. But the alternative—not finding polyps before they turn into colon cancer– is much worse. Colon cancer is among the top three leading causes of cancer deaths among both men and women. But the good news is if polyps are found before they become cancerous this prevents colon cancer from occurring. What this means is that in many cases, having a colonoscopy will save a life by actually preventing cancer that would have occurred. Regular screening can also find colorectal cancer early, when it is most likely to be curable.
After my experience with breast cancer I found myself on a soapbox to convince my friends to have mammograms and colonoscopies. As I was having lunch with a good friend one day, she told me she had never had a colonoscopy, even though she was past sixty. When I asked her why, she replied, “I am a very private person and don’t like invasive medical procedures, and besides I don’t have anyone to drive me there anyway. I would have to have it done early in the morning and I don’t want to be a bother.” Perhaps her biggest reason for putting this off, however, was that her husband had died several years earlier of a different type of cancer, and her memory of the continuous tests with contradictory results and emotional trauma was more than she could bear to think about. I looked at her with understanding and told her, “I’ll drive you there.” She finally agreed to have the test done and I was with her when she found out she had a large, precancerous polyp. Most of these are removed during the colonoscopy and require no further follow-up except for more frequent screenings. However, during the routine biopsy, hers was found to be more serious and required inpatient surgery a few weeks later. I am so grateful to have played a part in preventing my friend from developing colon cancer. The doctors told her she was very close to that happening. Many of you reading this probably aren’t fifty yet. But if you have parents or friends who are, I urge you to talk and talk and talk to them until they agree to have this test. It could save their life.
4. UNEXPECTED CHANGES —
Although losing weight without trying may seem like a dream come true, it can also be a sign of cancer. (Mayoclinic.org) An unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more may be the first sign of cancer of the pancreas, stomach, esophagus, or lung. The American Cancer Society encourages you to pay attention to this as well as other unexpected changes in your body, including but not limited to:
- Fatigue—extreme tiredness that doesn’t get better with rest;
- Pain such as a headache that doesn’t go away or get better with treatment;
- Changes in skin color;
- Blood in your urine or stool or other noticeable changes in bowel habits or bladder function;
- Trouble swallowing;
- Recent changes in the way a wart looks;
- Sores that do not heal.
For more information see the American Cancer Society website.
If you are having any of these symptoms, don’t ignore them. Take to heart these words of warning from the ACA:
If you notice any major changes in the way your body works or the way you feel – especially if it lasts for a long time or gets worse – let a doctor know. If it has nothing to do with cancer, the doctor can find out more about what’s going on and, if needed, treat it. There may be other causes for each of these, but it’s important to see a doctor about them as soon as possible – especially if there’s no other cause you can identify, the problem lasts a long time, or it gets worse over time.
5. FAMILY HISTORY—
One last thing to think about on this last day of National Cancer Prevention Month is your own family history. You may want to consider talking to your own health care provider about any increased risks you might have because of family members who have had cancer. They may recommend additional tests or more frequent screenings.
Those with a strong family history of certain cancers may want to consider genetic testing to see if they are at increased risk. Because of my own three-generation family history of breast cancer I’m looking forward to doing the Counsyl Inherited Cancer Screen.
Counsyl is a health technology company that offers DNA screening and genetic counseling services as a way to learn your risks for certain types of cancer. They have offered me this test if I will share my experience with you. You can find out more about their services at their website You can also talk to your own doctor about other genetic testing available to you.
This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Counsyl. The opinions and text are all mine.