Since 1985, October has been designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Each year, athletes sport pink shoes, people run in fundraiser marathons and women all over the world wear pink ribbons. These efforts are all to increase awareness of breast cancer, to encourage preventative testing, to raise funds for research and to honor the women around the world who have fought the illness.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 250,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and 42,000 women die from the disease. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the U.S., as one in eight women will be diagnosed with it in her life. Breast cancer can be hereditary, but it can also arise from cell mutation during a woman’s lifetime.
Cecilia Smith is the development director at Susan G. Komen Ozark. She is a two-time breast cancer survivor, who wanted to work at the Komen Center after she experienced the wonderful support system that they provided for her. She was first diagnosed when she was 32. Smith expressed that COVID-19 has greatly affected funding and research. In a normal year, independent organizations and companies host funding drives, sales and benefit dinners to raise money for breast cancer research. However, many of these events were unable to take place this year; Komen Ozark moved its 23rd annual Pink Ribbon Luncheon online this year. Further, Smith shared a concern that many women may have been putting off testing. “Three months can make a big difference in how big a tumor is, so, if women put it off, it could be stage 3 or stage 4, when they could have caught it at stage 1.”
Some of the advancements in breast cancer research are more targeted treatments. “The more they identify how cancer behaves, the more they can do more targeted treatments that are not as invasive and not as hard on your whole body,” Smith said. “Now they have treatments that can figure out if your cancer is hormone-positive or -negative and estrogen-positive or -negative. There are more treatments coming out all the time that are more targeted.”
In an interview, Smith shared some advice for young women to become more informed about their risks. “One thing is to know your family history … even if [breast cancer] is on your father’s side, men can be carriers and pass it down to their children genetically,” Smith said. Smith also suggested to “know your body and know when something doesn’t feel right.”
Eliza Newkirk, senior chemistry and intercultural studies double major, experienced a battle with cancer through her mother’s illness: ovarian cancer. While ovarian and breast cancer are very different, women are the primary victims. Newkirk’s mother was diagnosed in 2009 and again in 2019, defeating it both times. Newkirk’s family medical history was a factor in choosing to study science as her great aunt also had ovarian cancer.
“I developed a theology of suffering really young, and that has shaped the way I think about the world in science and intercultural studies. That theology has shaped my interest and vocational direction,” Newkirk said. When asked about the best things young people can do to foster a healthy lifestyle, Newkirk said, “Exercise is one of the biggest reducers of your chance of getting cancer. Also, eating a nutritious diet,” Newkirk continued. “You don’t want to live in fear; you want to live a full life.”
With a health pandemic and an election demanding most of America’s attention this month, pausing to reflect on those who are dealing with other serious health concerns, like breast cancer, is important. If you are interested in hearing more stories from survivors, the CDC started a campaign called “Bring Your Brave,” which highlights the stories of young women whose lives were affected by breast cancer.
Illustration courtesy of Anna Butler