Whether it’s October or not, breast cancer is one of the most recognized cancers in the world. Thanks to massive public awareness campaigns, nearly everyone understands the significance behind a pink ribbon, but how many can say they have breast cancer knowledge beyond pink?
The truth is, breast cancer is extremely complex and not a one-size-fits-all disease. It’s classified into different types based on the unique biology of each tumor, including the size, whether and where it’s spread, how it looks under the microscope and what’s causing it to grow at the cellular level, according to the American Cancer Society. Understanding the various biological features is critical, as they help determine treatment decisions and directly affect patient outcomes.
As breast cancer survivor Pamela Cunningham knows all too well, knowledge is power when navigating a breast cancer journey. When diagnosed with Stage II HER2-positive early breast cancer, an aggressive type of the disease, Cunningham said that while she understood there were different stages, she was shocked to discover there were so many different types.
In fact, her mother had faced breast cancer several years earlier and neither Cunningham nor her father knew what kind her mother had.
To better understand her diagnosis, she talked with friends who had faced similar situations and even sought a second opinion. After learning more, Cunningham felt confident in her decision to receive a treatment regimen that helped shrink her tumor prior to undergoing surgery to remove it.
“I’m really thankful I went the way I did,” Cunningham said. “I would advise other women to do their own research, find out the available treatments and don’t be afraid to ask your doctor about all of your options and possible side effects.”
Cunningham and her oncologist, Dr. Karen Tedesco of New York Oncology Hematology, offer the following tips to help patients more fully understand how to approach a breast cancer diagnosis.
1) Strength in Numbers: The news of a cancer diagnosis can be incredibly overwhelming to patients and their loved ones. Make the most of the first few doctor appointments by bringing a friend outside of the immediate family to ensure the information is being absorbed and the right questions are being asked.
2) Build a Support Team: In addition to family and friends, it’s important to have a strong health care and surrounding support team. Seek out nurse navigators, local breast support groups and financial assistance to ensure you’re properly informed and have all the resources you need. Do not hesitate to consider a second opinion until you feel 100 percent confident in your health care team and treatment plan.
3) Understand Your Diagnosis: Learning about your specific type of breast cancer is essential because the unique biology of your tumor can directly impact your breast cancer journey. Knowing the four S’s – stage, size, status and subtype – of your tumor can help you better understand your diagnosis and the treatment options available to you.
4) Ask Questions, Then Ask More: Consider asking your doctor the following questions: Are you eligible for clinical trials? Are there special treatments geared toward your specific type of breast cancer? Do I need surgery? Does surgery have to be the first step? Being actively involved can help ensure each patient receives the best treatment option for them.
For more tips to take on a breast cancer diagnosis and to better understand the four S’s, visit gene.com.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images