Regional Cancer Center ~ Erie, PA

Painting October Pink: Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Sep 30, 2016 | Posted in News

Oftentimes during the month of October, many houses, businesses, and parks are flooded with pink to represent National Breast Cancer Awareness month. Philip H. Symes, M.D.,Medical Oncologist, Hematologist and Clinical Director at the Regional Cancer Center, describes this type of cancer in a little more depth and explains how it came to be one of the most targeted supported health campaigns.

“First of all, breast cancer is very common. I see breast cancer patients every day at RCC. It is not unusual to see half a dozen new patients in a week,” states Dr. Symes. “Moreover, most breast cancer patients will be cured.” Breast cancer is most widely known as one of the most common forms of cancer, which is why it has such a strong and large advocacy group. Many of the patients seen do not need invasive surgery, however, as they carry pre-cancerous lumps or lesions. These patients would need lumpectomies and radiation rather than more extensive chemotherapy treatments. The sooner it is removed, the better results for the patient.

“Smaller breast cancers with negative lymph nodes have cure rates over 90% in many studies. That means that we see many follow-up patients, year after year, who are likely cured,” explains Dr. Symes. “This is very gratifying, and many of these women act as breast cancer advocates.”

The biggest problem that medical oncologists face is determining whether patients actually need chemotherapy, as over treatment has become an issue with this type of cancer. Complete mastectomies have become popular ever since Angelina Jolie had announced having one after being tested positive for the BRCA genes, which are the best-known genes linked to breast cancer.

“A lot of patients want to be overly aggressive. We know that minimal surgery (lumpectomy followed by radiation) gives results equivalent to mastectomy in most women,” says Dr. Symes. “Nationwide, this message has been neglected, as many women have elected to remove breasts on the mistaken belief that this offers an increased chance of cure.” Lumpectomies and radiation are fairly simple solutions in terms of survival rates, but the hype around breast cancer can create more anxiety for those diagnosed.

Being tested for the BRCA gene is helpful in detecting mutations that could possibly be linked to breast cancer, but these are not common. Once a person has already been diagnosed with breast cancer, it would be vital to be tested for this gene in order to know what to look for and how treatment should proceed. Women and men, who have close relatives that carry the gene, or who have had breast or ovarian cancer, should also be tested – especially if there are any men in the family who have been diagnosed – as there is a good chance that the gene runs in the family.

Those in the academic community are pushing for breast conservations. Patients that do test positive for the BRCA gene can take some preventative steps, such as removing the ovaries after childbearing years, or receiving annual breast MRI’s.

“Mammograms and screenings are still recommended,” states Dr. Symes, “but everybody [medical personnel] recognizes that a lot of the cancers that are being picked up are very small and detected very early. A lot of people we see are going to do well and be cured just by surgery alone.” Five percent of cases are genetic driven, but the majority of cases of breast cancer arise sporadically. Although this is one of the more sensitive forms of cancer because it is hormonal driven, patients of any age group can have a good quality of life for many years even with stage IV cancer, which is one of the little known facts of breast cancer.

Also, breast cancer has been one of the best examples of targeted therapy for the disease family. Testing positive for HER2, which promotes breast cancer cell growth, can actually be treated very effectively as there is a specific target for treatment. These cases of treatment can reduce recurrences of cancer by 50%. This discovery has been one of the most progressive studies found in the world of breast cancer, so targets are continually being searched for in this disease to lead to the most effective forms of treatment.

“Breast cancer can actually be very curable and oftentimes has very good outcomes,” states Dr. Symes. “The survival stories are better than people expect.” Upwards of 95% percent of patients are able to live well even 10-15 years following the first diagnosis without any recurrence of the disease. Complete education and an understanding of the details of the diagnosis can not only help the patient, but also the family members to understand how to best support their loved one. And of course, one of the easiest ways to support those affected by breast cancer is by simply painting October pink.

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