Breast Cancer: A Son’s Story

According to “cancer.org.,” the estimated number for new cancer cases in the USA for 2015 is 1,658,370, (this number does not include some non-invasive cancers). Approximately 589,430 people will die of the disease. That translates to about 1,620 people per day. Vermont will see around 4,020 new cancer cases in 2015. Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the USA, with heart disease being number one. The most common cancer in women, other than skin cancer, is breast cancer. One out of every seven or eight women in the USA will get breast cancer at one point in her life. By the end of 2015 there will be 231,840 new breast cancer cases in the USA with 40,290 people dying of it. In Vermont, there are expected to be 530 new cases this year with 80 deaths.

I know I am throwing around a lot of numbers here, but I wanted to show how many people are affected by this disease.

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Cancer occurs as a result of mutations, or abnormal changes in the genes responsible for regulating growth of cells and keeping them healthy. Normally, old cells die off and new cells replace them. Mutated cells gain the ability to keep dividing without control, producing more cells and forming a tumor.

Breast cancer starts in abnormal cells in the breast which grow very fast and form a tumor.  There are different types of breast cancer. The most common type of breast cancer is IDC (invasive ductal carcinoma). It spreads into the surrounding breast tissues. About 80 percent of breast cancers are invasive ductal carcinoma. Another common breast cancer is lobular carcinoma, which is a cancer that starts in the milk ducts. It is often harder to diagnose because it’s not one big mass, but sends out filaments. The actual tumor is often much larger than what the ultrasound indicates. Most people diagnosed with breast cancer are women, but men can also get breast cancer.

I chose to write about this topic because my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of months ago. I didn’t know how to react. It felt as though someone had punched me in the gut.  My aunt also has to deal with breast cancer. Hers has metastasized and gone into her bones. Doctors are treating it as a chronic condition.  Right now, she is doing great.  My mother often calls my aunt to ask her questions or to swap gallows humor. “It’s nice to talk to somebody who has gone through the same thing. Doctors throw a lot of medical terms at you, but other patients understand how you feel and they are not horrified when you make bad jokes about losing your hair,” she said.

I asked my mother how she felt about having breast cancer. “I was very surprised when I was told there was a lump in my breast. Up to that point I actually felt great, I felt stronger than I had in a long time. Getting a breast cancer diagnosis felt very surreal, it felt like the doctors were talking about somebody else and not me. Pretty soon it was pretty clear that they were actually talking about me, I’ve seen many doctors, had a breast biopsy, scheduled the surgery… talking about chemo and radiation and survival rates, that definitely made it real.” I then asked my mother what she was able to do: “After the surgery, it took a few  days to recover and then I slowly went back to normal. I even had full range of motion. Chemo is a different story. It poisons the body and you feel tired and achey all the time. Every day you hope to feel better and it seems that every day something else starts to hurt. It’s nice to hear from other breast cancer patients that this is totally normal.”

I then talked to Megan Falby, U-32’s health teacher, my question being “what can women do to prevent breast cancer?” She responded, “The harsh answer is that breast cancer can sometimes not be prevented.There are risk factors, and risk factors are basically anything that affects your chance of getting a disease. We know smoking has been proven over the course of 80 years to increase the risk of cancer. Right away we know that if you are a non smoker your chances of being diagnosed with any type of cancer decreases, and vice versa. In terms of prevention, you start by feeding yourself healthy food.”

Other factors are a healthy lifestyle, eating a varied diet and getting lots of exercise. My mother’s advice to women is, “Learn how to examine yourselves. Self examination has found many cancers. Next time you see your doctor, ask him or her to show you how to do self examination and what to watch out for.”

Cancer is a sneaky disease and over the last couple of months, I found out that many U-32 students have family members who are affected by it. It can be a scary thing. To our parents’ generation, getting a diagnosis of cancer was like getting a death sentence. But this isn’t so true anymore. More people are staying alive in spite of cancer than ever before. So it might be better for young people to talk about it more, especially if it helps cancer patients to feel less lonely when they’re sick.