Every October, people all over the world show their support for everyone affected by breast cancer — and this has been the case since Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) was founded in 1985.
With all the funding and support this disease has received as a result of BCAM, the American Cancer Society reports that breast cancer death rates among women declined 40% from 1989 to 2017.
Here’s why breast cancer awareness is critical: Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women. Each year, about 255,000 women get breast cancer and 42,000 women die from the disease. But because of the lack of access to screening services throughout 2020, American women will likely be diagnosed with an estimated 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer.
In the second blog post of this series, I talked about how mammograms are the best way to detect and treat breast cancer early, long before it’s too aggressive to cause severe symptoms.
To honor breast cancer awareness, this blog post is all about the unique journeys women experience.
Each story shines a light on the importance of breast exams and screenings, plus you can learn about the many ways this disease impacts our bodies and how people choose to fight back.
🎀 If you aren’t up to date with my breast cancer awareness blog series, check out the first post! Then, don’t hesitate to take action: Read the second blog post of the series to find free and reduced-cost mammogram services near you! Plus, learn all about how mammograms save lives.
Triple-negative Breast Cancer
Eight years ago, mom and marketing professional Ricki Fairley thought her annual checkup would be just another simple task to cross off on a long to-do list — but it wound up changing and saving her life.
After her doctor discovered a lump in her breast and she received a biopsy, Fairley learned she had triple-negative breast cancer.
(💡 The more you know: Triple-negative breast cancer is a type of cancer that tests negative for and isn’t fueled by estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, plus excess HER2 protein — that means this cancer doesn’t respond to hormonal therapy medicines or medicines that target HER2 protein receptors. More on hormone receptors below!)
At the time, she didn’t take it too seriously, thinking the diagnosis surely sounded worse than it was. In actuality, triple-negative breast cancer tends to be among the most aggressive forms of breast cancer.
When she eventually began working through her diagnosis, Fairley thought her best option was to have a double mastectomy, so she went on to receive six rounds of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. One year after her diagnosis, Fairley attended her scheduled breast scan, and doctors found five metastasized (spread to other sites in the body) spots on her chest.
With this information, Fairley learned she had two years to live.
Fairley immediately began researching and stumbled across the Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Foundation (TNBCF), an organization that raises awareness and provides support for those diagnosed with the disease. Thankfully, a TNBCF patient advocate recommended that Fairley see a doctor in Atlanta, who helped her receive four more rounds of chemotherapy — and just like that, there was no trace of Fairley’s cancer.
Considering this fortunate turn of events a miracle, Fairley has since devoted her life to breast cancer advocacy.
A triple-negative breast cancer survivor, Fairley now serves as a TNBCF board member. Plus, she advocates for other patients and works to eliminate racial disparities through her nonprofit organization, Touch: The Black Breast Cancer Alliance. Fairley founded Touch to build community and advocate on behalf of people who have historically been left behind in research and treatment, such as Black women. This is especially important, as Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer in the later stages and to develop more aggressive types of breast cancer at younger ages than white women.
Additionally, she’s also a founding member of #BlackDataMatters, which encourages and elevates the importance of Black Women participating in clinical trial research.
Story courtesy of Gilead.
Breast cancer runs in Bree’s family.
She lost her aunt and grandmother to the disease, plus her mom is BRCA-1 Positive. Although she’s only 26, clinical breast exams and mammograms weren’t new to her, as she began her journey with them long before the recommended age of 40 for annual mammograms.
Still, when Bree heeded her boyfriend’s advice and got a clinical breast exam in 2020, she didn’t expect to learn that she was BRCA-1 Positive, too.
Past breast exams and mammograms didn’t yield any results Bree’s doctors said she needed to worry about. Yet, when the free clinic called her that summer, amid the upheaval of COVID-19, she remembers everything going from vibrant to dull and that she couldn’t breathe or think.
Doctors discovered that Bree faced an aggressive type of breast cancer that was estrogen- and progesterone-negative and HER2-positive.
The more you know:
💡 Hormone receptor-negative – Receptors are proteins in or on cells that can attach to certain substances in the blood. Normal breast cells and some breast cancer cells have receptors that attach to the hormones estrogen and progesterone, and they depend on these hormones to grow. Without estrogen or the progesterone receptor, the cancer is hormone-receptor negative.
💡 HER2-positive – A breast cancer that tests positive for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), which promotes the growth of cancer cells.
To treat this cancer, Bree is undergoing chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiation, plus more chemo following these treatments. Only six months into her treatment journey, Bree has a long way to go, and she acknowledges that it’s still difficult for her to show up to each session (unaccompanied due to COVID-19) and feel she belongs there.
Despite the difficulties, Bree is grateful she was diagnosed sooner rather than later. She’s also happy to debunk a huge myth: Prior to her diagnosis, Bree had been advised that “if it doesn’t hurt, it’s not cancer.” Later, her oncologist informed her that because breast cancer is in fatty tissue, many people don’t notice it at first.
🔑 In other words, don’t wait for an abnormality to hurt or feel uncomfortable before you get it checked out by a health provider.
Story courtesy of the Young Survival Coalition.
Then, There’s Me — Preventative Treatment
In the first blog post of my breast cancer awareness series, I share my own journey.
I’ve always been vigilant about making sure to get any health screening I need, and my annual mammogram was no exception, even during COVID-19. So, when I got my mammogram earlier this year in March, I assumed it’d be routine, especially since I didn’t notice any lumps or bumps in my breasts that required my attention.
Despite being regular with screenings and lump-free, my mammogram identified an area of concern. After more imaging, a biopsy, an MRI and a lumpectomy, I learned I had a 53 to 68% chance of getting breast cancer within the next 10 to 20 years — while the average risk for an American female developing breast cancer over their lifetime is 12.9%.
To figure out the best way to navigate my breast cancer prognosis, I collaborated with my care team of experts as well as my family, and we decided the best treatment option for me was a preventative double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction.
Although I could’ve taken medicine that would’ve cut my risk in half, it was important to me that my treatment plan be as curative as possible.
The importance of breast cancer awareness is just that — awareness. Without the early detection of clinical breast exams and mammograms, we can’t be aware of available treatment options, many of which are off the table the further breast cancer progresses.
🎗Take action: Check out the second blog post of my series to find free and reduced mammograms services near you! Plus, learn all about how mammograms save lives.
Meet Dr. Savita Ginde
Dr. Savita Ginde is an advocate and thought leader for reproductive health and served as Chief Medical Officer of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains for over 13 years. And, until very recently, she served as the Chief Healthcare Officer for STRIDE Community Health Center where she oversaw all of STRIDE’s healthcare services and led their COVID-19 vaccination efforts.