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Celebrating Survival

Awareness is helping more women beat breast cancer

SUNDAY, Sept. 23, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- In March 1998, Carmen Bryant went for her annual mammogram and the results looked fine. But two months later, she was doing her monthly breast self-exam in the shower and felt a lump. The same day, her daughter came to visit. Bryant picked up her young grandson.

"He barely touched me, but it hurt me," Bryant says. "In my heart of hearts, I knew."

The next day, her worst fears were confirmed at the doctor's office. She had breast cancer. After her surgery, she met the leader of a breast cancer coalition, who invited her to a support-group meeting. Bryant didn't want anything to do with it. But she finally went, she admits, to appease the woman.

"I said, 'Let me just go once. This lady is a pain in the neck,' " Bryant recalls. "Guess what? I couldn't wait for the next one. My husband is wonderful and my kids are great, but they didn't have breast cancer. The support group really helped my survival."

What was missing from the support group, she says, were other Hispanic women like herself.

"I promised that when I finished my chemo, I would come back to my neighborhood and find out what was going on," says Bryant, who works as the assistant manager of a bank. "[Hispanic] culture is totally different. When I told my mother, who loves me dearly, the first thing out of her mouth was 'Don't tell anybody' [about the cancer].' But I had to try. [Hispanic women] have to know it's OK to talk about it, or they're going to die."

Today, Bryant, 52, of Brentwood, N.Y., leads a breast cancer support group for Hispanic women and also volunteers with Reach to Recovery, a program that sends breast cancer survivors to hospitals to meet with women who have just had mastectomies. She helps Spanish-speaking women obtain prostheses, wigs and other services.

"The majority of them don't have [reconstructive surgery] because there's no insurance," Bryant says. "When we started, some girls were using shoulder pads for prostheses when they're entitled to these things for free. They're afraid to ask and talk about it."

On Oct. 3, Bryant will do plenty of talking on a panel of breast cancer survivors. The panel is part of a celebration of surviving breast cancer. It will also mark the 20th anniversary of Adelphi University's New York Statewide Breast Cancer Support Hotline.

Bryant is one of dozens of specially trained volunteers who take calls on the hotline, which provides information, treatment assistance, and emotional support to thousands of breast cancer patients each year. The second-oldest breast cancer hotline in the nation, it also provides outreach to underserved groups and educational programs on recent advances in detection and treatment.

There's encouraging news to share. Breast cancer, the most common type of cancer for women after skin cancer, will strike an estimated 192,200 American women in 2001, according to the National Cancer Institute. But since 1997, the number of women dying from breast cancer has been declining, says Dr. Nevena Damjanov, an oncologist at Fox Chase-Temple Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

"Finally, the curve has started to shift downwards," Damjanov says. "There are free mammograms for women who can't afford them. There's so much more press coverage of breast cancer as a disease, and women are much more aware. [As a result], early detection and treatment are impacting mortality rates."

Research has led doctors to now recommend that women with a strong family history of breast cancer have mammograms and a breast MRI twice a year, Damjanov says. The recommendation for women without a family history is an annual mammogram starting at age 40, and monthly breast self-examinations.

There are new treatment options as well. The standard surgical procedure for breast cancer, Damjanov says, has been to remove six lymph nodes along with the cancerous breast tissue to ensure that the cancer hasn't spread. Now, surgeons are first performing a biopsy on what's called the sentinel lymph node.

"If the sentinel lymph node is negative, then you can be fairly certain there's no evidence [of cancer] in the other lymph nodes," she says. That means a less radical form of surgery, less pain, reduced risk of swelling, and shortened recovery time.

New drug therapies also are being tested that allow women to take pills at home instead of being hospitalized to receive intravenous drugs.

All together, detection and treatment options are giving women a better chance of surviving the disease.

"If it's caught early, you have a very, very good chance of being cancer-free for many, many years," says Damjanov. "People only think of cancer as something that kills people. It doesn't have to kill people if you catch it early enough. You get rid of it and go about your business."

What to Do: You can learn more about breast cancer at the National Cancer Institute, and at Adelphi University's New York Statewide Breast Cancer Support Hotline.

SOURCES: Interviews with Carmen Bryant, breast cancer survivor, Brentwood, N.Y.; Nevena Damjanov, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, Temple University Hospital, medical oncologist and hematologist, Fox Chase-Temple Cancer Center, Philadelphia; National Cancer Institute's What You Need to Know About Breast Cancer
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