By Janna M Hall
Every year, approximately 232,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. Of those 232,000, 40,000 of them will die from the disease. In Virginia, 6,620 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year alone, and of those women, 1,080 will die.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s critical that this month and all year long, women are educated on the disease that affects so many. Adequate resources, support, and education are key components that have allowed the mortality rate to remain on the decline in the past 20 years, and it’s up to us to keep saving the lives of women across the nation.
When it comes to the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation, they’ve made it their mission to equip women with the resources that help them navigate their entire breast cancer experience, from annual screenings and early detection to “newly diagnosed” next steps and local support groups. Their mission is simple: to educate, advocate, and eradicate. Since 1991, they’ve been making strides in the state of Virginia, committed to eradicating breast cancer through proper education and advocacy.
Katy Sawyer’s passion for the healthcare nonprofit field has led her to serve in many organizations and groups within Virginia’s Healthcare Foundation, and throughout her time serving in Virginia, she’s placed special focus on assisting uninsured and underserved communities in receiving the healthcare they need. She’s brought that same passion to the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation for nearly five years, and as the Executive Director, has dedicated her career to keeping those breast cancer diagnoses on the decline. How is she accomplishing this? First and foremost, pushing the importance of annual screenings.
“One of the keys to the decrease in mortality over the last 20 years has been early screening and diagnosis,” Sawyer explains. “Early screening and diagnosis can significantly improve a woman’s chances of survival, because if the cancer is caught early on, there’s typically a much easier treatment course. This obviously depends on the specifics, but generally, if you catch it very early, you can go the minimally invasive route.”
So when should women begin their early screenings? Based on the data, Sawyer recommends that at age 40, women should begin getting their annual mammograms. Of course, it’s critical that women understand their body’s workings and remain sensitive to changes at every turn. It’s very common to neglect your breasts outside of annual screenings, as we’ve moved away from the monthly self-breast exams in the shower. However, Sawyer and other healthcare professionals stress that because women’s breasts change throughout their monthly cycle, understanding how the tissue feels all month long allows you to spot any abnormalities before it’s too late. Again, it’s early detection that saves the lives of so many women.
Upon hearing that mammogram screening should begin in their 40s, women in their 20s and 30s admittedly disregard their breasts, putting off self-care until it’s time to begin yearly screenings. But Sawyer warns that such a practice only does women looking to stay ahead of any detections a great disservice. Educating yourselves and getting familiar with your body is certainly one of the greatest steps younger women may take to ensure optimal health. “It’s worthwhile to know your family’s medical history, but honestly, 90% of women diagnosed have no family history or known risk factors,” she explains. “Research suggests that only about 5-10% of breast cancer is hereditary. So younger women, again, it’s about knowing your body, and if unusual things happen, taking that up with your healthcare provider.”
When breast cancer does strike a woman of a younger age, it’s usually a more aggressive form. To reach young women who may not be actively pursuing information on breast cancer and screening locations, the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation provides education through schools, and distributes their materials through volunteer groups such as schools, faith-based organizations, community groups, and local book clubs.
In those materials, you’ll find more commonly known facts and information, but also helpful data and statistics that drive home the importance of getting ahead of your health to ensure a healthy, happy life. But what surprises many is the involvement of men in the brochures and pamphlets.
Breast cancer is the 2nd most diagnosed cancer for women, and that’s usually where the breast cancer common knowledge statistics stop. But on average, there are approximately 2,400 new cases of breast cancer in men each year, and about 400 of those cases actually die from the disease. “It’s a lesser number compared to women who are reporting over 200,000 new cases of breast cancer each year, but it’s significant because their breasts are much closer to their lung wall,” warns Sawyer. “An undetected case of breast cancer has the potential to affect so many other tissued areas.”
Education for men is critical because as we know, breast cancer is often seen as a women’s issue. We don our pink ribbons during the month of October. The Susan G. Komen walks are full of women who’ve beat the disease and celebrate the strength of other women who are battling and defeating cancer. College students often wear their “Save the TaTas” t-shirts, shirts they’ve bought in support of their local breast cancer foundation. This culture has allowed men to remove themselves from the conversation, neglecting their own breasts. As a result, any abnormal lumps are often dismissed as “anything but breast cancer,” which puts those who are in fact affected at a greater risk. With early detection and treatment, we can save the life of men and make sure their number remains on the decline, as well.
While the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation is not a direct service or clinical provider, they do offer a wealth of resources around breast cancer and break down those resources on a local level in Virginia.
“We have state national resources, but we also have local resources on a more granular level,” says Sawyer. “Our resources answer questions such as ‘Where can I find the local support group out in Wise County?’ Or ‘Where can I find wigs and prosthetics in Abingdon, Virginia?’ Whatever your question may be, we have a wealth of resources that really assist you no matter what stage in the process you’re in.”
In addition to the resources on the website, the foundation also sends out approximately 75,000 Breast Help Basics brochures for men and women each year.
“Breast cancer awareness is more than the pink ribbon,” she affirms. “The brochures talk about the data and what signs to look for, and we’re really trying to educate people on the early screening tool and how you get help if you need it. We also help publicize the state’s Every Woman’s Life program, which is a state program that provides free mammograms to low income, uninsured women.”
Whether women are learning about the specifics of screenings and cancer for the first time, or are deep into their breast cancer journey, the foundation is there to equip women to feel confident at every stage. Sawyer believes that as women develop their breasts, they should be aware, not afraid, of the disease. And the foundation accomplishes just that. They’re truly the one-stop-shop for the best breast health information, from online resources to the print copy packets visitors can request on their website, www.vbcf.org.
“We’re just trying to share the facts about breast cancer. We don’t want to frighten people or use scare tactics; we just want people to have a place to come to find the latest, current research and education materials. Above all, we’re a group men and women can—and should—trust.”
For more information on breast cancer screenings in your area, local support, or other local resources, visit the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation’s website at www.vbcf.org.