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3 things I want my patients to know during Breast Cancer Awareness Month 

3 things I want my patients to know during Breast Cancer Awareness Month

By Dr. Catherine Plzak, WellSpan breast cancer surgeon 

Most women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of breast cancer. Do not assume that if no one in your family has had breast cancer it won't happen to you. 

One in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.  

As women, all of us should follow the appropriate mammography screening guidelines for our age and personal risk. Risk assessment includes information about family history of cancers but also childbearing history, menstrual history, and weight – obesity is a risk factor for breast cancer. Ideally, risk assessment should be performed when a woman is in her 20s by her gynecologist or primary care provider, to help guide each individual regarding when screening should begin and what type of screening is preferred. 

There is reason for hope, too. 

The good news is that mammography helped us to make incredible improvements in survival AND make a better quality of life possible because breast cancer is picked up earlier. It decreases the need for treatments that may have more side effects. And it leads to longer, better lives. 

Of the women who develop breast cancer, the majority will do well and go on to live their lives doing the things they planned to do. For those who develop a recurrence, many can live for years on treatments that do not cure cancer but hold it at bay. Think asthma or colitis – not things we cure but generally issues that can be treated to allow a person to live and function with it, though the disease is there. 

We aren't yet at 100% for everyone, which is why there is continuing research and a need for all of us to consider participation in clinical trials if we can. We got where we are because of women who were willing to be our advocates. Pay it forward. 

Take a lesson from the serenity prayer.  

Accept what you cannot change. For example, my mom had breast cancer. Maybe you have a close friend or family member who did as well. We can't change it and should not let that make us afraid every minute of every day.                                                                                                                        

And – this is important – have the courage to change the things you can. Lose weight. Stop smoking. Exercise. I know it isn't easy, but these things are at least to some degree under our control, with help as needed. I'm fortunate to be a normal weight but struggle to knock off a few pounds after vacation. Greater weight loss can be very challenging. There are now specialists in weight loss medicine and surgery if the challenge seems too great. 

There are medicines to help stop smoking if it just doesn't work when you try. My mom did fine after her breast cancer treatment but died from the effects of years of smoking, so smoking cessation is helpful for your heart and lungs too. (I can't change my years of exposure to secondhand smoke, but you can give your loved ones that gift.) 

I'm very impressed by those who have the determination to go to a gym and some regular regimen is ideal. But, personally, for me, never gonna happen. (The gym clothes make it tempting, almost.) 

A dog is great! Dog walking is not a chore, it's cancer prevention in action. As a cat person I sometimes try to imagine I have a dog and make myself do a "dog walk." I did try a cat on a leash. Bad idea. 

What else? I park farther from the entrance when I shop to get in a bit of extra walking (unless it's raining…I'm not that dedicated). If I can take stairs rather than an elevator, I do so. Since I don't do formal exercise, I try to add it into everyday life whenever I can. I've even been known to run in place while watching TV. No laughing – it's cancer prevention, right?! 

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you have us and our expert surgeons to help you through the journey. Go here to see our resources, including our surgical oncoplasty program featuring Dr. Plzak.