My view: Breast cancer early detection message insufficient

By Denise Neish

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 29 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, May 28 2014 9:36 p.m. MDT

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After Amy Robach, co-host of Good Morning America, shared her breast cancer battle with the world, she resolved, “I will start on a new journey, helping raise awareness about early detection.”

Amy, I’m glad you’re better, and it’s a nice thought, but unfortunately, it’s the same insufficient message about breast cancer that gets repeated over and over again.

When I was diagnosed with “incurable” (metastatic) breast cancer at age 37, I cringed every time someone told me I would make a great spokesperson for this oft-repeated public health message, “early detection saves lives.”

True? Yes. But it’s a slap in the face to someone trying to maintain any shred of hope after a late-stage breast cancer diagnosis. It’s like shouting to a person who tripped, “Watch your step!” Well, it’s too late for that advice. Extending your hand to help seems more appropriate.

After a year aggressively battling my “incurable” cancer, as my doctors called it, I have enjoyed two years of remission with no evidence of disease. My husband and four young children are grateful I didn’t give up hope, even though I did not detect my cancer early.

I still see the billboards — the ones that stabbed like a dagger through my desperate heart when I was first diagnosed. “Early detection saves lives!” Great idea, but for women who are younger, or have no family history of breast cancer, it’s unlikely they will be diagnosed early. Seeing that message everywhere doesn’t do them any good.

Other common public messages, regarding breast cancer, seem to be somewhat of a joke. I’ve seen catchy phrases like, “Help save the tatas!” Because having a mastectomy is the worst thing that can happen when you have breast cancer, right?

Wrong. The worst outcome is that you can die from it! I won’t minimize the trauma for women who have a mastectomy, if everyone will stop minimizing a breast cancer diagnosis. It’s not just about boobs. You won’t die from breast cancer that stays in your breast, but if it spreads (which is what defines stage 4) then all of a sudden it’s considered incurable because the cancer has entered your blood stream and traveled elsewhere in your body — usually bones, brain, lungs, or liver. When that happens, the last thing you’re concerned with is whether or not you get to keep your “tatas.” At least the t-shirt with the message “Of course these are fake, my real ones tried to kill me” emblazoned across the chest is more accurate.

Don’t get me wrong, it is better to detect breast cancer early, but can we please start addressing those who did not catch it early, but who also want to live? These women are moms, wives, girlfriends, sisters, friends. Breast cancer is the number one cancer for women, and it’s no joke.

The current dialogue around breast cancer seems to be either that it’s hardly serious enough to be called cancer, or that those diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer are beyond hope. Neither is true.

My message for researchers is, “Spend more time trying to find a cure for metastatic breast cancer — the kind that can kill you."

To doctors, I say, “Don’t take hope away from any patient who wants to fight. Aggressive treatment has resulted in a cure for some metastatic breast cancer patients, but we want more.”

To everyone, I say, “If you are diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, don’t accept a death sentence. There are survivors of metastatic breast cancer. That’s a fact. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise."

Denise was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer at age 37, and is a mother of four. She has been in remission for 2 years. Denise runs, writes, and enjoys her family.

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