October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual observance to raise awareness about a dangerous disease that affects more than 1 out of 7 women. Awareness is important – the greater the knowledge about breast cancer, how to detect it early and reduce risk, the more lives that will be saved.
Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the cancer most likely to affect a woman – nearly 13% of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes. While the disease may occur in men, it is quite rare. Breast cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women ages 55-64, with a median diagnosis age of 62.
The National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, estimates there will be 276,480 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in 2020, representing slightly more than 15% of all new cancer cases and 30% of all cancer diagnoses in women. It is projected that 42,170 women will die from the disease this year, accounting for 7% of all cancer-related deaths.
The good news is that the incidence of women dying due to breast cancer is decreasing: the breast cancer death rate has dropped nearly 2% each year between 2007 – 2016. In 1975, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer was 75% -- it has now increased to 90%. That means nine out of ten women diagnosed with breast cancer today will still be alive in five years and many will go on to live much longer than that.
There are two main keys that increase the odds of breast cancer survivability: early detection and effective treatment. Abnormalities in the breast are detected most often through a mammogram, although there are also other diagnostic tests used to screen for breast cancer. Breast self-awareness, a process in which a woman recognizes any change in the appearance or feel in her breasts, is also an important component of early detection.
For women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, a variety of medical treatments may be used to combat the disease. The most common are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment and endocrine therapy.
For additional information on early detection and treatment, as well as risk factors and symptoms, please read our 2019 article on breast cancer.
Complementary and Alternative Treatments
To state the obvious, a breast cancer diagnosis is scary for the patient and her family. In the aftermath of the shock that accompanies this kind of unwelcome news, it’s normal for a woman and her loved ones to try to learn everything they can about the disease and research the ways it can be defeated.
“Your physician will be the best source of information regarding your treatment options and what to expect,” explains Dr. Joseph Heyne, a breast oncology surgeon. “That does not mean you should not also do your own research – just be sure to rely on proven information sources. And, if you read or hear about alternate therapies, just be sure to discuss them with your physician to see if it’s something that can work with your medical treatment.”
Non-medical treatments fall under the broad description of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM.
As defined by the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alternative treatments are not medical treatments and not provided by a doctor.
Extreme examples of alternative treatments are outlined in more detail below, but there are other, innocuous sounding treatments that are of concern, also. A special diet might sound healthy – but if it is implemented in place of the cancer treatment recommended by the doctor, that’s not healthy – it’s dangerous.
Some alternative treatments are described as “all natural,” which does not have any particular medical significance. “Just because it is ‘natural’ does not necessarily mean it is safe as a treatment for cancer or for anything else,” explains Dr. Anita Chow, a breast oncology surgeon.
As an example, some people use St. John’s wort, a natural supplement, to help with depression. Studies have shown St. John’s wort can interfere with certain cancer medications, making them less effective. Even common supplements, such as Vitamin C, can adversely impact chemotherapy treatment. That is why any vitamin or supplement must be carefully evaluated before taking it.
“Some vitamins or supplements may be OK to take in conjunction with your physician-recommended cancer treatment,” says Dr. Heyne. “But there are so many variables when it comes to the interactions of herbs and supplements with the human body, not to mention with prescription medications, that patients really need to have a conversation with their physician first.”
Complementary treatments, if used properly, will help a patient cope with the impact of the disease and treatments, which can be hard on the body. Appropriate complementary treatments will work well in tandem with the patient’s medical treatment or at the very least, not interfere with it.
When approved by a doctor, a complementary treatment may provide value to the patient, but they must never be allowed to replace medical treatment. Oncologists and internists at the Yale School of Medicine conducted a study comparing patients who underwent complementary cancer treatments with patients who received only conventional medical treatments. The study found that patients who received complementary treatments were also more likely to refuse at least part of their conventional medical treatments, which created a higher risk of death.
If you are considering complementary treatments, just remember, they are intended to help you cope with the physical or emotional impact of the disease and medical treatment; they are not in any way a treatment that kills the underlying cancer. Only medical treatment – usually surgery, chemotherapy and radiation – can accomplish that.
The Mayo Clinic identifies 10 complementary treatments that are generally safe and may help cancer patients. However, even with these therapies, the patient must consult with her physician first to ensure that the treatment is safe for her. Every patient’s situation is different, so be sure to talk to your doctor.
- Acupuncture: This ancient treatment may help some people with nausea caused by chemotherapy, as well as pain. Only see an acupuncturist who is recommended by your doctor.
- Aromatherapy: This involves the use of fragrant oils that create a calming effect. There are professionals who provide this service, but many people just do it at home on their own.
- Exercise: Exercise is good for you for a lot of reasons. If you’re battling cancer, it can help with the stress and pain.
- Hypnosis: Some people find hypnosis to be helpful in easing stress, anxiety or even pain. It should only be performed by a certified therapist. If the patient has history of mental health challenges, it may not be appropriate.
- Massages: Massages can help relieve stress and pain. Only work with a massage therapist who is trained and experienced in working with cancer patients.
- Meditation: Meditation is a healthy way to relax and relieve stress. An instructor can help you or you can do it on your own. There are various apps you can download to help with mediation.
- Music Therapy: This can involve listening to music, playing music, signing or writing songs. Many cancer treatment centers have music therapists available to patients.
- Relaxation techniques: A therapist can help you learn to better relax your mind, as well as your body.
- Tai chi: This is a type of exercise centered around gentle movements and deep breathing.
- Yoga: Yoga is another popular exercise that involves deep breathing and stretching. There are yoga instructors who specialize in working with cancer patients.
Again, complementary treatments should only be used if approved by your physician and never in place of medical treatments.
Making Your Battle Plan
A breast cancer diagnosis marks the beginning of a battle – and like any fight, you need help and people on your side. Your family, your friends, your doctor and other health care professionals are in that fight with you.
“It’s normal to seek out every possible option to help you defeat a terrible disease like breast cancer,” says Dr. Chow. “If you are confronted with a breast cancer diagnosis, try not to let the scary proposition of it – and it is definitely scary – lead you to embrace therapies that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and not overseen by a licensed doctor. Proven science – combined with the love and support of your family and friends – is the best way to beat breast cancer. Remember, you are not alone in this fight.”
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