When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2016 at the age of 42, I thought that breast cancer was, well, just breast cancer. I didn’t know that actually there are multiple different types of breast cancer, lots of different treatments and different prognoses dependent upon a number of factors. I went into this whole experience completely unaware of the big picture. There were so many things I didn’t know, which now with hindsight, I wish I had known. And I’m fairly sure that not knowing those things added to my fears and worries.
So, for breast cancer awareness month, I am going to do you a favour and give you a bit of a heads up about breast cancer. An overview, if you like. And I am doing this because the breast cancer statistics are pretty scary. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK*. It affects men as well as women and there are around 54,900 new breast cancer cases in the UK every year, that’s around 150 every day (2013-2015)*. Current statistics are that 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer in their lives**. Wow.
What is breast cancer?
First off, let me tell you about the different types of breast cancer. To start with, there is primary breast cancer. This is the most common form of breast cancer and it is cancer which manifests in the breast and has either not spread outside the breast, or has just spread to the lymph nodes. Under the umbrella of “primary breast cancer” there are different types (too many to discuss here, but CRUK have some excellent information about the different types). Breast cancer can be found at different points of growth and spread and this is what is commonly known as “grade” (how different the cancer cells are to normal breast cells and how quickly they are growing) and “stage” (the size of the cancer and how far it has spread – breast cancer may be described as stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 or stage 4).
And then there are things called “receptors” which are proteins on the tumour to which hormones or other proteins can attach and stimulate the cancer to grow. All of these factors affect the treatment that will be given (there are many different treatments – surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, and then there different chemotherapy drugs) and the prognosis. Primary breast cancer has a good survival rate. Breast cancer survival is improving and has doubled in the last 40 years in the UK.*
But now, let’s move on to a lesser known aspect of breast cancer: secondary breast cancer (also known as “advanced” breast cancer or “metastatic” breast cancer). Those of you who haven’t been affected by breast cancer may not even have heard of it (I certainly hadn’t before I had my own run-in with primary breast cancer).
Secondary breast cancer is where breast cancer cells spread from the first (primary) cancer in the breast through the lymphatic or blood system to other parts of the body. It is often referred to as the cancer “metastasising”. Roughly five in every 100 people with breast cancer already have secondaries when their cancer is first diagnosed ** and it is roughly estimated that a further 35 out of every 100 people with primary breast cancer will develop secondary breast cancer within 10 years of their first breast cancer diagnosis.** It is estimated that around 35,000 people are currently living with secondary breast cancer in the UK.** There is currently no cure for secondary breast cancer. Depending on a number of factors (including how far the cancer has spread, where it has spread to and for how long the cancer has been spreading) the length of time that someone can survive after a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer varies greatly from a matter of weeks to years and its growth can often (but not always) be controlled with treatments.
What is it like to have breast cancer?
That’s a good question, and one that I could write heaps about (in fact I have written heaps about it for various organisations and charities). Everyone with breast cancer has a different story. A different beginning, middle and end so there isn’t one easy answer to this question. However, I can show you a snapshot. Working with Breast Cancer Care (the UK’s largest breast cancer support charity) we have put together the Breast Cancer Film Project. A collective story of breast cancer. By the people with breast cancer.
And this is what we got. Three short films showing a snapshot of the real story of breast cancer, from those living it: (1) Life with Breast Cancer, (2) Moving On After Breast Cancer and (3) Life With Secondary Cancer
In these short films, people who are living with (or after) breast cancer show how life involves treatment, scans and tests. They show scars, fears and struggles. They show love, support and kindness. They show acceptance, hope and perseverance. They show life carrying on despite cancer. They show people living their lives to the full. They show you real life with breast cancer. They are each around 2 minutes so, really, you don’t have an excuse not to watch them.
So, what now?
There you go, you now know some facts about breast cancer and more about the realities of life with breast cancer. But what now?
Well, for a start you can check your breasts and I don’t mean a quick squeeze in the shower every now and again when you remember. You need to educate yourself on how, when and what to check for. There are plenty of resources out there to help you but to save you the bother of finding them I’ve created a list of links for you. Finding breast cancer early can literally save your life.
And what if I want to donate to a charity?
It was be absolutely wonderful if you were to donate to a breast cancer charity but please can I ask you not to just buy something pink this month. Yes, I know it is everywhere, and those who are selling the pink wares are making a big deal about breast cancer but look at how much of the money that you pay for the pink item actually goes to the charity (if any – because there are some rogues out there who use pink to sell their wares and don’t give a penny to charity). Yes, I know that something is better than nothing, and there is a place for these items (the Pink Ribbon Foundation, for example, rely upon funds received from the sale of these types of products) but why not consider making a direct donation to one or more breast cancer charities, or holding a fundraising event for one of the charities, so that more of your money makes its way directly to the charity?
But whichever charity you choose – do your research first. Some charities fund research, some fund support, some fund campaigns. Some fund a variety of these things. They are all deserving of your money, you just need to decide what is important to you. For more information about donating to a breast cancer charity you could read this page on my website, where I have identified ten excellent charities doing work in the breast cancer sector, together with information on how they spend their money and quick links to help you donate.
And there you go
Breast cancer is not going anywhere any time soon. It’s here and the statistics are a bit scary. But you can do your bit. Be aware. Talk about it. Don’t feel that you need to speak in hushed tones if you, or someone you know, has breast cancer. Check yourself. Help your family members and friends who are going through it. Donate to a worthy charity after doing your research. And, if you want to buy pink this month, please do.
EDUCATE. CHECK. DONATE.
*Statistics courtesy of Cancer Research UK
**Statistics courtesy of Breast Cancer Now
Thanks to Jo Taylor ABC Diagnosis for her advice on the information about secondary breast cancer.
Also thanks to Breast Cancer Care for some of the information.
Sara is the founder of www.tickingoffbreastcancer.com, a website dedicated to helping people through their breast cancer treatment from diagnosis to living life to the full once treatment ends. Aged 42 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Sara decided to set up the website to support those who do not know which way to turn for help after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis; those who are overwhelmed by the breast cancer resources online; those who may be scared to go online for fear of what they might find; and those just looking for a comfortable, safe, calm place to turn for help. The website provides practical advice for each step of the way, together with many links and signposts to other online resources. Follow her on FaceBook, Twitter and Instagram.