Learning about Breast Cancer
- Breast cancer survivor Cynthia Nixon recently shared the best advice she’d ever been given: Don’t refuse anything, accept it all. Be open to all new things – places, people, foods.
- Nixon found a lump in her breast in 2006 at a routine mammogram. She began her mammograms at age 35 because of her mother’s breast cancer. Treating her stage 1 breast cancer involved six weeks of radiation, a lumpectomy and five years of the hormone therapy, Tamoxifen.
- There are many treatment options for people with breast cancer, but treatment depends greatly on the specifics of each case. Identifying these specifics means looking into whether the cancerous cells have certain receptors – the estrogen receptor, the progesterone receptor and the HER2 receptor.
- If you are at a higher risk for developing breast cancer, you should begin screening earlier. Risk factors for breast cancer include: being a woman, age, family history of breast cancer or a genetic mutation such as BRCA, having had a prior biopsy on an abnormal area, radiation exposure, lifetime estrogen exposure, not having a child before age 30 or never having children, obesity, drinking alcohol and lack of exercise.
Nixon has been married to her beloved wife, activist Christine Marinoni, 55, since 2012, and the couple has a child, Max Ellington Nixon-Marinoni. Together, the three of them live in a four-story townhouse in New York City. Nixon also has two other children – Samuel Joseph and Charles Ezekiel Mozes – with a former, longterm partner Danny Mozes.Read More
Cynthia Nixon’s Cancer Battle
Although Cynthia Nixon seems to be in a good place, there’s no denying she’s been through many ups and downs – including her breast cancer battle.
Nixon found a lump in her breast in 2006. Thankfully, her cancer was found at stage 1. And though breast cancer is always a serious diagnosis, Nixon remained calm throughout her cancer journey.
“When I was diagnosed, my wife —who was not my wife at the time because there wasn’t yet gay marriage in New York—went into shock about it,” she told Parade. “She was really scared. I was much less scared because I understood they caught it very early. It hadn’t metastasized at all. And it was in this one very local, small place.”
She went on to say that her mother was a big reason she took the news so well.
“My mother had breast cancer when I was 13, and she survived,” she said. “Because of not only my mother’s experience, but also my mother’s attitude, I viewed it with caution.”
For treatment, Nixon underwent a lumpectomy and six-and-a-half weeks of radiation followed by the hormone therapy Tamoxifen for five years.
“I did all the things advised for me to do, but I tried my best to keep my fear to a minimum,” Nixon said.
Nixon’s cancer was caught at a routine mammogram. She began her mammograms at age 35 because of her mother’s breast cancer.
Understanding Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is a common cancer that has been the subject of much research. Many women develop breast cancer every year, but men can develop this cancer too – though it is much more rare, in part, due to the simple fact that they have less breast tissue.
Signs and symptoms of breast cancer may include:
- A breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue
- Change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast
- Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling
- A newly inverted nipple
- Peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin
- Redness or pitting of the skin over your breast, like the skin of an orange
It’s important to keep an eye out for these symptoms while remembering that having one or many of them does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer. Regardless, you should always speak with a doctor promptly if anything ever feels off or you’re experiencing one or more of the signs listed above. You never know when speaking up about your health can lead to a very important diagnosis.
Screening for breast cancer is typically done via mammogram, which looks for lumps in the breast tissue and signs of cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says women should begin yearly mammogram screening for breast cancer at age 45 if they are at average risk for breast cancer. The ACS also says those aged 40-44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year, and women age 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms.
It’s also important to be on top of self breast exams. If you ever feel a lump in your breast, you should be vigilant and speak with your doctor right away. Voicing your concerns as soon as you have them can lead to earlier cancer detection which, in turn, can lead to better outcomes.
There are many treatment options for people with this disease including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
Appropriate treatments depend greatly on the specifics of each case. Identifying these specifics means looking into whether the cancerous cells have certain receptors. These receptors – the estrogen receptor, the progesterone receptor and the HER2 receptor – can help identify the unique features of the cancer and help personalize treatment.
“These receptors, I like to imagine them like little hands on the outside of the cell, they can grab hold of what we call ligands, and these ligands are essentially the hormones that may be circulating in the bloodstream that can then be pulled into this cancer cell and used as a fertilizer, as growth support for the cells,” Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a SurvivorNet advisor and medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet.
One example of a type of ligand that can stimulate a cancer cell is the hormone estrogen, hence why an estrogen receptor positive breast cancer will grow when stimulated by estrogen. For these cases, your doctor may offer treatment that specifically targets the estrogen receptor. But for HER2 positive breast cancers, therapies that uniquely target the HER2 receptor may be the most beneficial.
Breast Cancer Risk
The risk of developing breast cancer varies greatly from person to person, so it’s important to discuss your specific risk level with your doctor. That being said, there are some important risk factors to keep in mind.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Elizabeth Comen laid out several risk factors for breast cancer including:
- Being a woman: Women are at a higher risk for breast cancer, though men can get the disease too.
- Age: “Breast cancer becomes increasingly more common as women age,” Dr. Comen said.
- Family history: “Some people think that breast cancer is only inherited through genes on the mom’s side,’ Dr. Comen said. “But it can also be related to genetic mutations that could be found on the father’s side.”
- Having had a prior biopsy on an abnormal area: “There are different markers, that if a woman has had a biopsy, it’s important that she talk to her doctor about whether those markers are lending themselves to an increased risk of breast cancer,” Dr. Comen said. If you’ve had a biopsy that indicated atypical hyperplasia, for example, you are at an increased risk of breast cancer. Atypical hyperplasia isn’t cancer, but it is a precancerous condition that describes an accumulation of abnormal cells in the milk ducts and lobules of the breast.
- Radiation exposure: Cancer survivors who’ve had radiation to their chest are at an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Lifetime estrogen exposure: “About 2/3 of breast cancer are driven by the hormone estrogen,” Dr. Comen said. “So, that means if a woman has had her period at an early age and started to go through puberty at an early age, at seven, eight, nine, and potentially a later age of menopause, means that her lifetime of having had menstrual periods and being exposed to higher levels of estrogen is higher, and therefore her risk of breast cancer is slightly higher.”
- Not having a child before age 30 or never having children
- Drinking alcohol
- Lack of exercise: “While there’s more research to be done in this area, it looks like if a woman is not exercising, she may also increase her risk for breast cancer,” Dr. Comen said.