By Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual event designed to raise awareness of this type of cancer and the need to detect it early. In 2020, 2.3 million women around the world were diagnosed with breast cancer. Breast cancer is now the most prevalent type of cancer worldwide, and it affects both men and women.
Normally during this time of year, there are a slew of print and online ads encouraging women to get their annual screening. However, most of the normal social media, newspaper, and TV headlines about breast cancer have been usurped by the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessity of getting vaccinations.
As a result, health screening for breast cancer has taken a back seat. According to KOTA-TV, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a 87% decrease in annual screenings in April 2020 largely due to the pandemic.
Some Statistics about Cancer
- Every two minutes, a woman in the U.S. is diagnosed with breast cancer.
- In 2018, about 1.7 million new cases of cancer were reported in the United States, and almost 600,000 people died of cancer.
- For every 100,000 people, 436 new cancer cases were reported and 149 people died of cancer.
- Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States (some kinds of skin cancer are the most common).
- Black women die from breast cancer at a higher rate than white women.
- One of every four deaths in the United States is due to cancer.
- Cases of cervical cancer and breast cancer are often intertwined. Many people diagnosed with cervical cancer are also diagnosed with breast cancer.
From these statistics, it is easy to see that breast and cervical cancer are a large contributor to deaths in women. However, early screenings can save lives, especially in underserved areas.
Why Has the Rate of Cancer Screenings Decreased during the COVID-19 Pandemic?
The pandemic has been directly linked to a decrease in cancer screenings for a variety of reasons:
- Clients have skipped their appointments because of social distancing concerns or they fear to leave their homes.
- Some hospitals have moved healthcare workers to higher priority sections of their facilities, such as the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) treating COVID-19 patients.
- Some procedures and screenings have been delayed, rescheduled or in some cases postponed indefinitely.
Because Warning Signs Differ, Early Screenings Are Best for Detecting Breast Cancer
The warning signs of breast cancer are not the same for everyone. Therefore, early screenings are the best form of detection.
Self-conducted monthly examinations are extremely helpful in the early detection of breast cancer in both women and men. However, creating system-wide changes in the U.S. health system is needed to ensure everyone has access to the necessary resources they need for detecting and treating breast cancer.
This effort means funding screenings and research to ultimately cure cancer and to take care of patients who live in areas that are under-resourced. Where a person lives shouldn’t influence the ability to get needed medical treatment.
While most people who develop breast cancer have no family history of it, this disease can be influenced by race, ethnicity and genetics. Many breast cancers are preventable, influenced by lifestyle choices such as a lack of exercise or the regular consumption of alcohol.
In other cases, some risk factors cannot be avoided. These risk factors include old age, hormone replacement therapy or a family history of breast cancer.
During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, take the time to understand your personal breast cancer risk. According to the CDC, you may be eligible for a low cost or free screening if:
- You have no insurance, or your insurance does not cover screening exams.
- Your yearly income is at or below 250% of the federal poverty level.
- You are between 40 and 64 years of age (breast cancer screening).
- You are between 21 and 64 years of age (cervical cancer screening).
- Certain women who are younger or older may qualify for screening services.
Types of Cancer Treatment
Cancer treatment varies from person to person. The type of treatment you receive depends on your diagnosis, the type of tumor, the size of the tumor, the extent to which the cancer has spread in your body, your stage, and the resources available to you.
Here are some of the most common types of treatment:
- Chemotherapy – taking pills and/or using an IV with a medicated solution to kill cancer cells
- Immunotherapy – stimulating your own immune system to target cancer
- Hormone therapy – using medication to inhibit or stop the growth, generation, and spreading of new cancer cells
- Targeted therapy – taking medication that triggers the body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells
- Surgery – removing the tumor, lymph nodes, surrounding tissue, or the entire breast (often referred to as a lumpectomy or a mastectomy).
- Radiation – using targeted, high-energy X-rays or other forms of radiation to kill cancer cells that might be left in the breast or lymph nodes after surgery (also called radiotherapy)
Group Therapy for Treating the PTSD of Having Cancer
Group therapy is another form of cancer treatment, because undergoing treatment and ultimately surviving cancer can be mentally draining. Some cancer patients equated the post treatment process with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to BreastCancer.org, approximately 80% of women report PTSD symptoms after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis.
Group therapy is an opportunity for breast cancer survivors, patients, and medical professionals to share their experiences with each other and to create a community. While no medication is provided in therapy sessions, many cancer patients have expressed the benefits of having a support group.
For people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, there are in-person and virtual opportunities to connect with others. Support is also available to caregivers. According to the Systematic Review Journal, “Caregivers play a crucial role in the management of women with breast cancer, and they are faced with increasing challenges in their caregiving roles.”
As Breast Cancer Index notes, “You can’t take the fear out of cancer, but you can reduce the uncertainty around treating it.” So during Breast Cancer Awareness Month – and any other time of year – we should all do our part to reduce the possibility of breast cancer. That work includes increasing public awareness of this disease, advocating monthly self-exams and regular screenings, and communicating available community resources to family and friends.