Raising Breast Cancer Awareness
- Sherry Hughes was diagnosed with breast cancer after advocating to have an additional advanced screening – a breast MRI. Now, she works for the Cincinnati Cancer Advisors, raises cancer awareness and educates others about the disease and screening practices.
- Breast cancer is a common cancer that has been the subject of much research, so there are many treatment options out there. Mammograms, a standard screening procedure for breast cancer, and self breast exams can save lives.
- Signs and symptoms of breast cancer can include a breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue; a change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast; changes to the skin over the breast such as dimpling; developing a newly inverted nipple; peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin; and redness or pitting of the skin over your breast like the skin of an orange.
- Risk factors for breast cancer include: being a woman, age, family history, 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.
Hughes was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 30, 2019 – the same disease that took her mother’s life in the early ’90s. Thankfully, her disease was caught early, but it still “hid” from doctors.Read More
But upon asking for a breast MRI after consulting with her gynecologist, doctors found a “small suspicious mass.” She underwent two 3D mammograms that failed to detect her tumor as a follow-up, but an exploratory biopsy finally found her cancer. Doctors said Hughes’ dense breast tissue was the reason so many techniques missed her breast cancer.
“It was the Divine Intervention and the breast MRI that saved my life,” Hughes said. “Nothing had been detected in the mammogram. They caught it early thanks to the MRI, but it was aggressive. Had it gone undetected for a year or two, I’m not sure I’d be here today.”
The avid runner and swimmer underwent six rounds of aggressive chemotherapy, surgery, five-and-a-half weeks of radiation and more than a year of immunotherapy to treat her invasive ductal carcinoma. Even still, she showed up to work whenever she could.
“It wasn’t easy,” Hughes said. “But I wanted to show people my circumstances so they could see a face of cancer and that life goes on even after a cancer diagnosis.
“People were so gracious to show support for me, but they also saw me as a vehicle to share their stories.”
On the other side of her cancer journey, Hughes started work “with a different purpose.” She joined the Cincinnati Cancer Advisors – an organization that “exists to improve the care of cancer patients seeking a second opinion so that they walk away with a thorough understanding of their diagnosis and confidence in their plan of care.”
“It felt like all these years after my mom’s passing and me wishing there was something there that I could have done more for her, I now finally had that opportunity,” Hughes said. “Everything we do is free to the patient.
“We don’t want insurance standing in the way of our ability to serve those who need us.”
Appearing on talk shows, Hughes is a leader for the organization’s educational campaigns. She wants to educate the public about cancer and screenings and be a voice for Black and minority women everywhere
“At the end of the day, cancer is cancer and more must be done to help everyone,” she said. “But knowing that for one reason or another, someone is not going to get the health care they need because of their race or income level or zip code, is not acceptable.”
Hughes even lobbied for the passage of Ohio House Bill 371 this year which passed with unanimous bipartisan support in June. This bill makes it so that insurance companies must cover additional advanced screenings for individuals who are at high risk for breast cancer or have dense breast tissue.
“As a cancer survivor, you take it one day at a time,” Hughes said. “But I know today, I’m in a place where my cup is running over.
“I’m blessed to be here and able to help other people in a position of need and hopefully to save someone else’s mom.”
Understanding Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is a common cancer that has been the subject of much research. Many women develop this disease every year, but men can develop this cancer too – though it is more rare, in part, due to the simple fact that they have less breast tissue.
There are many treatment options for people with this disease, but treatment depends 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 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.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Signs and symptoms of the disease can include the following:
- 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.
Breast Cancer Screening
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.
For screening purposes, a woman is considered to be at average risk if she doesn’t have a personal history of breast cancer, a strong family history of breast cancer, a genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer such as a BRCA gene mutation or a medical history including chest radiation therapy before the age of 30. Beyond genetics, family history and experience with radiation therapy, experiencing menstruation at an early age (before 12) or having dense breasts can also put you into a high-risk category. If you are at a higher risk for developing breast cancer, you should begin screening earlier.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Connie Lehman, chief of the Breast Imaging Division at Massachusetts General Hospital, said people who hadn’t reached menopause yet should prioritize getting a mammogram every year.
“We know that cancers grow more rapidly in our younger patients, and having that annual mammogram can be lifesaving,” Dr. Lehman said. “After menopause, it may be perfectly acceptable to reduce that frequency to every two years. But what I’m most concerned about is the women who haven’t been in for a mammogram for two, three or four years, those women that have never had a mammogram. We all agree regular screening mammography saves lives.”
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.
Understanding Your 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. 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.