The topic of cancer is close to my heart, literally. In 2006 I was diagnosed with a giant tumor in my chest. The cancer was non-Hodgkins lymphoma. After a combined 9 months of toxic chemotherapy, and radiation, my prognosis looked grim. The chemo didn’t wipe out the cancer, nor did the 4 weeks of radiation to my chest.

Finally, at one of the “top” cancer hospitals, the table discussion became – stem cell transplanting. The idea was to infuse the white blood cells from my brother into me, with hopes that his defense system would search and destroy the cancer. While contemplating the procedure, and all the potential health issues I would have to deal with, I realized based on my education that the stem cell transplant wouldn’t work for me.

My thought was, “if the chemo didn’t get in the tumor to kill the cancer, how was my brothers blood gonna get the job done.” Plan B. Upon my request, I challenged them to remove the tumor; a procedure they claim to have never done before. August 18th, 2008 my chest was opened up, and the tumor removed. I am alive and well today.

Being victorious over cancer came from a place of education and critical thinking. If I had not been an advocate for my own health, I would have followed the standards of care and not lived to tell my story. My victory has inspired me to write an article on cancer awareness and education, or a lack there of. Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought I would share my thoughts on cancer awareness. The following is an excerpt from an article I wrote called Breast Cancer: From Awareness to Education.

This is a long one…bear with me.

The month of October always conjures up memories of my siblings and me frantically creating costumes for one of the most fun days of the year—Halloween.  The anticipation of walking the streets, getting bags of candy, trick or treating, and seeing our breath in the air sent chills down our spines. And let’s not forget mischief night!

Many years later, I still get butterflies in my stomach in anticipation of the change of seasons, spooky decorations, and trick or treaters coming to the door for their hard-earned goodies. However, October not only symbolizes the month of ghouls and goblins; it has also become known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Halloween has its signature colors of orange and black; breast-cancer awareness is symbolized with pink. From pink chinstraps on football helmets, pink USB drives and pink flashlights to bagel shops even making pink bagels, has the pink ribbon become just another catchy gimmick from which companies can profit?

Has breast-cancer “awareness” changed the incidence of breast cancer? My question is:  What did you learn about breast cancer during the month of October?

Anything?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths, next to lung cancer, among women. In 2012, it is estimated that 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed, as well as an estimated 57,650 additional cases of in-situ breast cancer. In 2012, approximately 39,520 women are expected to die from the disease.

Each year you are due for your annual OB/GYN exam and mammogram. You develop emotional anguish, as well and gastrointestinal distress, worrying about ‘what if’ something is found.

After the scan and exam, when that questionable density found on the mammogram turns out to be something harmless, in your mind you think “Phew, I’m OK” and you skate by another year. This system has been become the standard of care for the prevention and detection of breast cancer—screening and awareness.

Of course, early detection through diagnostics and screenings has saved lives. But using that approach alone has created a system of reactive medicine. Early detection leads to standards of care consisting of cytotoxic drugs, radical mastectomies, and estrogen-response modifiers (blockers) that can cause early menopause. It is not only reactive; it is crisis care.

In the last three decades, various organizations have raised billions of dollars. Their websites state that they are working to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all, and energize researchers to find cures.

My questions are:  Where is the education on the known causes of breast cancer? Where are the tools to help women become proactive in prevention instead of waiting for disease to set in? How do we shift the paradigm from awareness to education?

Do the fundraisers and awareness groups communicate with the researchers? Where is the disconnect? Have doctors talked to their patients about the research? Do the doctors know about the research?

Where are the facts and tools that would allow women to be proactive and empowered in controlling their health, thereby dramatically reducing the chances of getting breast cancer in the first place? Awareness is not the same thing as education. 

According to the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, “Genetic inheritance is an infrequent, not the main, cause of breast cancer.” The consensus is that breast-cancer susceptibility or cancer-predisposition genes are associated with only 4%–8% of breast-cancer cases. It is apparent, therefore, that 92%–96% of cases are sporadic.

The New England Journal of Medicine states that only 7% of women from families with a history of breast cancer had BRCA1 mutations. Furthermore, according to the journal Carcinogenesis, mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes account for 5% of breast cancer in the U.S. annually.

Normally, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes suppress tumor growth. When these genes have a defect in their normal function, individuals who have these mutations have a lifetime risk of breast cancer. Today, a new testing technology called BRACAnalysis® Rearrangement Test (BART) detects rare and large defects in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which were undetected by the standard genetic testing. 

This being said, having the genes that may spark the onset of breast cancer doesn’t mean you will develop cancer. Genes are sets of codes that cells use to regulate function. When these codes are damaged, or are influenced by estrogen or an estrogen-like substance, the genes create disease.

It is becoming well known in the scientific community that the majority of cancers are created by an unhealthful environment. From BPAs found in most plastics, and the widespread consumption of cow’s milk, to the standard American diet consisting of nutrient-deficient, high-calorie, processed, refined and synthetic foods – these unhealthful lifestyle choices seem to be the culprits in triggering the onset and return of cancer.

Where’s the Education?

It is becoming well known in the scientific community that the majority of cancers are created by an unhealthful environment. From BPAs found in most plastics, and the widespread consumption of cow’s milk, to the standard American diet consisting of nutrient-deficient, high-calorie, processed, refined and synthetic foods – these unhealthful lifestyle choices seem to be the culprits in triggering the onset and return of cancer.

It is also well known that breast cancer is triggered by the hormone estrogen. The action of estrogen is to cause cell proliferation, i.e., growth. Our cells have checks and balances in them to regulate cell growth, differentiation and even programmed suicide when a cell malfunctions.

Breast cancer, along with other types of cancer, is caused by a malfunction in these control mechanisms that leads to uncontrolled cellular growth and tumor formation. What prevents the malfunction and keeps these genes doing their job?

The internal environment.

The regulation of estrogen, insulin and insulin growth factors—the hormones that can play a role in the development of breast cancer—are all controlled by the foods we eat, the exercise we get, and the stress we endure.

Estrogen is metabolized by the liver, turning it into 2, 4, or 16 hydroxyestrogens. Cell growth is prevented by 2 hydroxyestrogen, but 16 hydroxyestrogen causes cell growth. If the ratio of 2 to16 is low, there is a greater chance of developing breast cancer.

Obesity, dairy consumption, cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol, Vitamin-D deficiency, and environmental exposure to pollutants like Bisphenol A (BPA) from plastics—all increase the risk for breast cancers.

Likewise, high saturated-fat intake combined with hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) has been clinically proven to induce cell proliferation. According to Perspectives in Cancer Research, “chronic administration of estrogen results in tumor formation.” Yet, despite the research, HRT is still widely used.

Research is also showing that a diet rich in plant-based calcium increases 2 hydroxyestrogen, which stops cell growth. Cruciferous vegetables—Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, and bok choy—provide this protection. According to the International Journal of Cancer, “the phytochemical indole-3-carbinol (I3C), from cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, has been shown to elicit a potent anti-proliferative response in human breast-cancer cell lines.” Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention found the use of indol-3-carbinol (the plant chemical found in cruciferous vegetables) can increase 2 hydroxyestrogen which, again, inhibits cell growth in breast tissue.

It goes on to say “these results support the feasibility of using diet-derived compounds to alter estrogen metabolism in a direction that should have a protective effect against breast cancer.”

You’re in Control

The scientific community is showing that an unhealthful lifestyle and poor food choices can increase your risk of cancer, and that high-nutrient-dense/low-calorie foods can help prevent cancer, Therefore, it seems irresponsible if your doctor tells you it’s all right to eat whatever you want.

The information exists to educate women and men (who can also get breast cancer) to empower them to make sustainable changes in their health in order to prevent breast cancer before there is the need for crisis care.

Despite the large sums of money raised from the sale of pink bagels, yogurt, soda and subs, breast cancer still remains the number 2 cancer killer among women.

So, I ask:  what was really done to educate, prevent and honor women during Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

Did the month get us closer to the cure, however far off in the future that may be? Perhaps awareness has perked up the ears of the public to have screening and exams done, with the hopes of finding breast cancer in its early stages.

However, the disconnect between awareness and education encourages people to continue their unhealthful lifestyles until the disease has progressed enough to be detectable. Sometimes, it is then too late for a cure.

Perhaps the month of October should be renamed Breast Cancer Education Month. This might have more of an impact on curing breast cancer and bring us closer to ending an epidemic.

While it’s great to raise money and awareness, the real cure will come from empowering women with specific prevention strategies and education, based on solid research and facts, and fueled by the motivation to make change.

This will lessen the need for crisis care and allow women a measure of control and an existence of happiness, freedom and longevity.

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