Women learning activism in fight against breast cancer

March 01, 1991|By Sue Miller | Sue Miller,Evening Sun Staff

MORE AMERICAN women have died of breast cancer than people have died in all the wars this country has been involved in.

Since 1980, the lives of 400,000 women have been snuffed out by breast cancer while there have been 87,000 deaths from AIDS.

Yet, the federal research budget for breast cancer last year was about $77 million compared to about $770 for AIDS.

The statistics roll off the tongue of Dr. Susan Love, a leading breast surgeon and author of a compelling book about breast cancer, the second most lethal malignancy for women after lung cancer.

"Women have learned from AIDS activists and, in my travels, I've found that women throughout the country are ready to man the barricades," she says.

"For example, I was at a recent meeting in Utah attended by 500 women, and they were ready to march and do what they had to do to get more money for breast cancer research.

"This is not to say we shouldn't be giving more money for AIDS, it's just saying, 'Look how successful the people with AIDS have been. They've made a loud noise and we should do that, too.'"

Love, who did two years of her pre-med studies at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, will return to the campus March 6 at 8 p.m. to speak on "A Contemporary Approach to Breast Cancer: What Every Woman Should Know." Tickets to the event, sponsored by the college, GBMC Women's Resource Center and Arm-in-Arm, a breast cancer support group, will be available the door of LeClerc Auditorium.

Reached by telephone in San Diego, Love was talking about the "politics of breast cancer," a grass roots campaign that stretches from Sacramento to Boston.

"This is an epidemic that hits one in nine women, and women are beginning to say, 'We have to do something about it, we're still doing the same old treatments and the mortality of breast cancer hasn't really changed over the last decade,'" she said.

"We're currently forming a National Coalition of Breast Cancer Advocacy Groups to try to organize a nationwide effort to increase money, access and influence."

Women are concerned that the incidence of breast cancer is rising and so are experts, like Love, who don't know what is causing the increase.

"There is no question the incidence is rising, and we really have to get it fixed," said Love, who directs the Faulkner Breast Centre in Boston and is on the Harvard Medical School faculty. "And yet, we don't seem to have the sense of urgency we really need."

There is some data that a low-fat diet might help prevent breast cancer, she said, but a national trial involving 20,000 women, which was designed about 10 years ago, remains unfunded.

"Now, at this meeting in San Diego, they have just announced funding of a trial using tamoxifan, an estrogen blocker, to see if that is something we can use to prevent breast cancer," she said.

Tamoxifan most likely would be used in a study of menopausal women at high risk because of their family histories, she said.

Love, who is also a surgical oncologist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute Breast Evaluation Center, stressed that being diagnosed with breast cancer "is not an emergency."

Women too often panic when they get the shattering news, and they blurt out: Just take the breast off and take care of me.

"Don't panic," she advises. "You have time to think, to get used to the idea and to explore your options. You really need to take the time to educate yourself so that you can make the best decisions for you."

Another important message, Love said, is that while mammography is very good, it is not perfect -- you can have a normal mammogram and still have breast cancer. If there's a lump, that needs to be looked into regardless of what the mammogram shows.

"I don't want to discourage women from having mammograms," she said. "Mammography is the only thing we have that improves the cure rate of breast cancer."

The importance of breast self-examination has been over-emphasized, she said, noting that most women do not do breast self-exams, not even women doctors and nurses.

"The important thing is that you touch yourself," she said. "When you are in the shower and you're all soaped up, just get acquainted. Don't look for anything, just get a sense of what is normal. By the time you can feel it, a lump will be the size of a grape. You're not going to miss it."

The 43-year-old scientist and author of "Dr. Susan Loves's BreasBook" worries about some ageism in medicine regarding older ** breasts.

"If you are over 70, if you are single or widowed, they think you don't need your breast any more so you might as well have it off," she said. "And, I think that's just baloney. You're born with two and it's nice to die with two."

The options, which include lumpectomy or lumpectomy with radiation, are just as valid in older women as they are in younger women, she said.

For additional information on Dr. Love's appearance, call 532-3166.

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