October: It’s that pink time of the year again when everybody wears pink and talks about breast awareness only it generally only covers how to check your breasts for lumps and bumps and signs of breast cancer. Breast cancer awareness month is mainly aimed at women who don’t have cancer, and may never have cancer. The point is I guess; if women know how to check themselves and what to look for they will be saved – cancer will be caught early and less women will die of the disease. Or will they?
I have no exact facts or figures here so I will just report what I’ve read recently combined with my 3.5 years of knowledge I learned along the way. If a women finds her cancer at stage 0- in situ or stage 1, the chances are she will make a full recovery and may not even need any treatment such as chemotherapy. Because the cells have not escaped and the tumour is the size of a peanut (stage 1) the chances are the woman will probably never go on to develop stage 4 cancer. However, stage 0 and 1 cancers rarely happen to young women because 1) they are too small for us to find ourselves and 2) women under 50 don’t have mammograms so they wouldn’t be detected anyway. In fact most women under 50 present with at least stage 2 cancers but most seem to have stage 3 cancers and a small few have stage 4 at diagnosis. This is because younger women have far more aggressive cancers on the whole and the cell division is much faster than that of an older lady. By the time we find our cancers in our breasts, the tumours have grown to a fair size and have often invaded the lymph nodes.
So back to awareness: whilst it’s certainly worth knowing what to look for and always going to your GP if you’re worried, you must be informed that catching it early as a younger woman under 50 does not mean everything will be ok necessarily. “Early” in oncologists speak is really referring to a stage 0 or a stage 1. Stage 2-4 when most of us find our tumours is not really what any of us should call early. The chances of breast cancer coming back in a woman’s lifetime with these stage cancers is quite high. The chances of it spreading to other parts of the body (stage 4) is *around 1 in 3. Stupidly high. I don’t think charities and doctors should scare you with hard facts, but there must be transparency.
Catch it early and you will be ok is a lie.
You may have more chance of being ok, but we must understand that this isn’t always the case. Years on from initial diagnosis,young women are being diagnosed with stage 4 and they originally had small tumours with no lymph node involvement. It’s said that cancer cells can spread through the blood, but nobody knows why some people make a ful recovery and others die of the disease. This is why people get annoyed at all the pink, all the fun and all the parties, because it’s no fun for 1 in 3 of us- we don’t feel like wearing pink and partying.
With that said, (and I hope my post thus far has been balanced and not too frightening), awareness is always a good thing and women still aren’t checking their boobs every month which needs to change! Catching it sooner than later is better than catching it when it’s at stage 4 and can’t be cured.
There’s been a hashtag of late that’s very prominent on Twitter called breast cancer reality check. This is to go along side awareness month- it’s not pink of fluffy it’s very real but at the same time it’s quite sad and depressing. Sometimes I want to tell the world how bad it is for me but other times I try to love life and forget about my cancer. Yesterday 100’s of tweets came flooding in my timeline about how awful breast cancer is, and it frightened me. People talking about dying, the fear, graphic photos, one after the other-bang bang bang; even though I share their reality and felt sad for them it was too much for me. So I wondered-if it scared me it sure as hell must scare others who are worried they may have cancer or have just been diagnosed. It is our reality, granted, and I fully believe in speaking up and being counted as a lady with stage 4, but I have to think about how scared I was when I found the lump and when they first told me I had cancer. I was petrified. Would I have wanted to read 100s of (some) passive aggressive tweets from women like me with stage 4? No! Sometimes I think stage 4 cancer should be treated as a separate disease as we have different fears and worries to those with primary diagnosis. It’s easy for me and others to feel like we are most important, a sense of entitlement even, but I feel guilty if I think I may have scared someone who probably won’t even have to go through what I have!
There needs to be some sort of balance. I don’t know what that is exactly, but I know that I want to be heard and I want to be able to tell people my reality to make them aware without giving them nightmares.
Yesterday my reality was cancer is frightening. I hated my life, and became very aware I was going to die soon, but a lot of that was because I could not unsee what was on my Twitter feed. Other days when I’m not constantly reminded of death and fear, I love life and I’m very content. I believe I have years left yet. I very much believe that some of us cope a lot better with the out of sight out of mind strategy.
Sometimes I think social media is the best and worst thing for us all at once particularly when you have cancer. There’s nothing wrong with stepping away from it for a while or muting people to get a little perspective on things. For now though, I live through my 4th year of breast cancer awareness and I’m lucky and happy to be alive. I’m even coincidentally wearing a pink dressing gown but let’s keep that between us… X
*There are currently no accurate stats out there to document how many women become stage 4 but the estimated figure is around 30 percent.