August 18th is World Breast Cancer Research Day. August 18th is the designated day because of the 1 in 8 women and 1 in 833 men who will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes. A staggering 12% of all cases worldwide are diagnosed as breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer accounts for 30% of all new female cancers annually in the United States. For men, they estimate that 2,800 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed.
Today is an important day to me because in late 1999, at age 35, my mom was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. I was a six-year-old kid who didn’t understand the whole scope of what was going on but needless to say; it was a tough battle. My mom won her fight, and while most of us attributed it to her being a superhero, she attributed it to having access to clinical trials at the time. Unfortunately, in 2016 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and by 2017, it had metastasized to most of her body, and on January 26, 2018, she passed away. Even with the awful hand she was dealt, she would always be the first to say that research into cancer, particularly breast cancer, is something we should be thankful for and that every step in research we should celebrate. If it weren’t for the research that was done to develop the clinical trials she had been able to try, she was unsure if she would have had the breast cancer go into remission and had the opportunity to live another 17 years with cancer in remission.
The clinical trial my mom was able to be part of was a regimen that used carboplatin, a drug discovered in the 1970s and first approved by the FDA in 1989. To demonstrate how quick research can make a difference, a short ten years after being FDA-approved, my mom was part of clinical trials using it. Carboplatin is still part of clinical trials today, which offers opportunities for research for those who choose treatments that use clinical trials. There are both positives and negatives to participating in these trials that are worth considering. Still, they offer the ability for research to be done and innovations in treatments to progress.
Breast cancer has always been around and can be seen as far back as 3000 BC in the offerings made by people of ancient Greece in the shape of breasts to Asclepius, the god of medicine. Hippocrates, who is seen as the father of Western medicine, suggested it was a systemic disease, and his theory stood until the mid-1700s when Henri Le Dran, a French physician, suggested that surgical removal could cure breast cancer. An idea that wasn’t tested until the late 1800s when the first mastectomy was performed, and while moderately effective, it left patients with an inferior quality of life. In 1898 Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the radioactive element radium, and a few years later, it was used to treat cancers, a precursor to modern chemotherapy. Around 50 years later, in the 1930s, treatment became much more sophisticated, and doctors began using targeted radiation in combination with surgery to help provide patients with a better quality of life. Progress continued from there to result in much more targeted and sophisticated treatments we have today, like radiation, chemotherapy, and most commonly, intravenous and in pill form.
Nowadays, one of the most common approaches for those with familial history of breast cancer is genetic testing to see if specific genetic mutations exist for you. These genes are breast cancer 1 (BRCA1) and breast cancer 2 (BRCA2), which generally help prevent you from getting certain cancers. However, when they have mutations that keep them from normal operations, they’re more at risk of getting certain cancers, namely breast cancer and ovarian cancer. To look back at my mom’s journey with it, she was one of the unlucky people who didn’t show either mutation in her genetic testing, which was devastating in knowing there were no signs of what made her so susceptible to both breast and ovarian cancer. Somehow, she found hope, though, mainly because it meant both my brother and I were at less risk of carrying the mutation ourselves.
Whether you’re male or female, it is crucial to be aware of the risks that breast cancer presents, and the number one piece of advice is to not skip checkups; if something feels wrong, speak to your doctor about it. Cancer research is always evolving, but it’s worth remembering that we have made progress in a relatively short time. Breast cancer has likely affected many of us either directly through being diagnosed, a family member being diagnosed, other loved ones, or friends. The thing that’s helped me when thinking about breast cancer is that there is always something to be hopeful for. Research has made so much progress to where it is now. It won’t go away on its own. Fortunately, we live in a time of brilliant minds and technological advances that allow research to make significant steps, as they’re often publicly funded initiatives. Consider finding a cause that resonates with you to donate to.
My mom always celebrated being a breast cancer survivor. Even though her ovarian cancer bout was one she couldn’t overcome, I still choose to see her that way. Not long after I turned 18, I got a tattoo on my wrist to celebrate her victory, and while she’s gone now, I still choose to look at the tattoo and celebrate the extra time we got to make memories and ensure I honor the person she was.