Outrunning Breast Cancer

SARA ENGRAM

September 26, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM | SARA ENGRAM,Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

When the crowd gathers at the Inner Harbor next Saturday to

begin Baltimore's first Race for the Cure, not all the runners who have had a brush with breast cancer will initially claim the pink visors that identify them as survivors.

But inevitably, organizers say, the women who eagerly don that symbol will inspire others to step forward and publicly acknowledge a disease that for too many years has been regarded as an embarrassing secret. In 34 other cities around the country, and now in Baltimore, the Race for the Cure has come to symbolize the determination to muster more defenses against a disease that claims the life of one woman every 11 minutes.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the Baltimore organizers of the Race for the Cure are using Saturday's event -- a 5K race for women and a 1-mile FunWalk for everyone -- as a way of raising both money and awareness.

Three-quarters of the money raised will pay for breast health care and education in the Baltimore area; the rest will help support medical research. The race and the publicity surrounding it will also serve as another reminder of the need for early detection efforts, still the most effective weapon against breast cancer.

Every Race for the Cure is a moving event, a day of memory and celebration, of joy and sadness. Many participants will run or walk in memory of someone who has died; others will celebrate a survivor. A few weeks ago, the Baltimore committee lost a vital member when Ellen R. Barnett died from the disease.

It's a tough balance, celebrating survival while mourning loss. But the emotional roller coaster of breast cancer -- or any life-threatening disease, for that matter -- is harder to ride alone. One of the great achievements of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which conceived and designed Race for the Cure, is to give women the assurance that there is strength in numbers. Maybe not immunity, but certainly strength.

For women like Ann Polk, co-chair of the Baltimore race, the event provides a focus, a way to do something constructive about a disease which sometimes seems to yield far more bad news than good. Ms. Polk, a survivor, readily characterizes her own experience as the best breast cancer story a woman can have -- very early detection, mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, no chemotherapy or radiation and, three and a half years later, no signs of the disease.

Even so, the emotions stirred by the ordeal are never far from the surface. Once a biopsy proves positive, the specter of mortality is never far away. "It teaches you to enjoy life," she says. "I'm not quite as intense about everything as I used to be."

Ms. Polk's story reflects the good news about breast cancer: When the disease is detected early, the survival rate is 90 percent; more than 1.5 million American women with a history of breast cancer are alive today. Early detection also significantly reduces the chances of losing a breast -- about 36 percent of women who develop breast cancer do not have a breast removed.

Early detection depends on monthly self-exams for every woman and regular mammograms on a schedule appropriate to each woman's age and circumstances. Suspicious lumps are not necessarily a sign of cancer; on average, only one in five is found to be malignant.

But the bad news is still grim. The incidence of breast cancer is going up, and nobody knows why. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 1993, 182,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer; 46,000 will die. Men aren't immune: About 1,000 males will develop the disease, and 300 will die.

Despite all the publicity about factors that increase a woman's risk -- such as a family history of the disease, early menses or late menopause, never having children or giving birth after 30 -- there is no way to predict who will get the disease. The vast majority of cases, perhaps as many as 90 percent, will occur in women with no known risks.

In other words, the greatest risk factor for breast cancer is simply being a woman, and the risk increases with age. At 30, a woman's chance of developing breast cancer is one in 2,525. At 40, her chances are one in 217. By 50, the risk jumps to one in 50. At 95, one woman in eight will develop the disease.

Those are scary numbers. But there's another statistic -- one we can do something about. Researchers say that if each woman in need of a mammogram had one, the mortality rate from breast cancer would drop by 30 percent.

Think of the lives behind that statistic, the loss and anguish that could be avoided. That's part of the message of Race for the Cure. The more it's heeded, the more pink visors we'll see in some future Race for the Cure.

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