Breast Cancer 101: Five Surprising Facts

Since my breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve spent countless hours researching, talking with survivors, and asking questions about breast cancer. Throughout this learning process, I’ve been amazed to discover that many of my initial assumptions about breast cancer were wrong. Read along to see which one (if any) of the following True or False statements comes as a surprise to you.

If there’s an area of concern on your mammogram, you most likely have breast cancer. True or False?

FALSE.

The majority of cases requiring follow ups do not result in a diagnosis of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, less than 10% of women called back for additional screening after a mammogram are found to have cancer. Hooray!

The term ‘breast cancer’ refers to just one type of breast cancer. True or False?

FALSE.

According to Breastcancer.org there are at least 15 different types of breast cancer. In other words, contrary to what your drill sergeant told you at Basic Training, you are a special snowflake and so is your cancer.

What’s more – beyond the many different types of breast cancer, there are also different Stages, Tumor Grades, Tumor Sizes, Hormone Receptors, Molecular Sub-Types and Proliferation Rates. Yes, it’s a lot to take in -is your brain hurting yet? Mine is! Read more about the various factors affecting prognosis and treatment including lymph node status and HER2 status  on the Susan G. Komen website.

If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, chemotherapy is always inevitable. True or False?

FALSE.

What constitutes the right treatment regimen for any given person has everything to do with their diagnosis and the factors affecting prognosis. In some cases, an Oncotype DX test may be helpful in determining whether chemotherapy is right for you. Talk with your doctor about what options are best and, when in doubt, get a second opinion.

Most people diagnosed with breast cancer have a first-degree family member with breast cancer. True or False?

FALSE.

Only about 13 percent of women diagnosed have a first-degree relative with breast cancer and only 5-10% of breast cancers are linked to an inherited gene.

Everyone diagnosed with breast cancer must have all lymph nodes removed. True or False?

FALSE.

Most breast cancer patients have a choice to make between axillary lymph node biopsy and sentinel lymph node biopsy. Sentinel lymph node biopsy is the “standard of care” in most cases. Forbes contributing writer, Elaine Schattner, does a great job discussing the differences between sentinel lymph node biopsy and axillary node biopsy in her article,  “Before Breast Cancer Surgery, A Question Every Patient Should Ask Her Surgeon.”

Ok reader, now it’s your turn – did any of the facts shared above surprise you? What is the most surprising thing you’ve ever learned about breast cancer? Share your feedback in the comment section below.

Additional Reading

Resources Referenced in This Post

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Yes. We’ve all been there.

Lifting the Weight of Waiting – 3 Ways to Combat Anxiety Before the Next Diagnostic Test or Surgery

Although I’d known since late October that I might have breast cancer, it wasn’t until early January that I received a definitive diagnosis.

Everyone said ‘waiting is the hardest part’ and they were right. Since I had more than two full months of waiting before being diagnosed and then another two weeks before surgery, it quickly became apparent that I needed a better way to manage stress. Everything else – from mammogram to ultrasound, to core needle biopsy and surgery – was easier than waiting and fearing the worst.

It’s worth noting, however, that in many cases, the wait time to diagnosis is far shorter – about 2 to 3 weeks, more or less. My  extended wait time was due mainly to my changing insurance plans.

3 Ways to Combat Anxiety

1. Call the American Cancer Society (1-800-227-2345) 

Wouldn’t it be nice to have your own personal oncology nurse on hand 24/7 to help answer questions and ease concerns about your specific diagnosis or upcoming test? Heck yes! But seriously – who can afford that? Well, surprisingly, the answer is: we all can.

360wwoman-smartphoneAssistance from trained professionals is exactly what you get when you call the American Cancer Society. I know it sounds impossible, but they’re doing it.

While many of the answers to questions about breast cancer can be found online, this often involves sifting through reams of unneeded answers as well. And when you’re driving (as I was) or simply strapped for time, it can be far more efficient to make a phone call.

These are just a few of the questions I’ve asked and had answered in great detail over the phone:

If you have questions regarding alternative therapies or statistics on patients who refuse standard of care, you won’t find the answer talking with the American Cancer Society, but they are great for helping navigate through the basics.

A note on privacy –  I eventually chose to share my personal information with the American Cancer Society so that my case could be easily referenced and I wouldn’t have to re-explain my diagnosis every time I call, but this isn’t necessary. Read more about the American Cancer Society’s commitment to privacy.

2. Reach Out to Others

Initially, I kept quiet about my upcoming tests and diagnosis because I didn’t want to worry anyone unnecessarily. However, once it became clear that a positive diagnosis was increasingly likely – especially after my ultrasound was classified as BI-RADs 5 – I decided to share what was happening with a small group of friends.

I also received a surprising amount of support from people I had just recently met and some went so far as to connect me with relatives nearby that might be able to help.

Whether it was a touching story that I read online or an inspiring phone call or text message from someone who experienced breast cancer and survived, each interaction left me feeling stronger and more capable of beating this disease.

For all of the support I’ve received from both old and new friends, I am eternally grateful.

3. Keep a Sense of Humor

Cancer is a serious topic and it shouldn’t be funny. Or should it? Laughter is known to decrease stress and it doesn’t cost a dime.

My personal belief is that if you can find even a shred of humor amidst all the awfulness of a breast cancer diagnosis, then you’re one step closer to recovery. Plus, if you’re able to laugh about what’s happening, it can also lighten the stress of everyone around you.

So go ahead – laugh a little.

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Although breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer among U.S. women with more than 250,000 new cases predicted in 2017, I didn’t see it coming. It wasn’t because I thought breast cancer would never happen to me, I simply imagined it as a distant concern – one that might cast a shadow over my “golden years,” but hardly a disease destined to take center stage in my early 40s.

So what does it feel like to be diagnosed with breast cancer? Well, there’s a long list of words (including a substantial number of profanities) that I could share to illustrate my reaction to that one particular moment.

However, in the interest of keeping this a family friendly blog, why not find a meme – one that could express all my feelings of profound disbelief in one universally accessible image? Oh sure, emotional complexity falls to the wayside a bit, but to a delightfully improbable yet hilariously relatable extent, this shocked koala meme says it all.

The Shock of Breast Cancer Diagnosis, as Told by Memes (Part 1 of 2)