Lorena Gonzalez, MD, knows breast cancer from two distinct perspectives—as a skilled breast surgeon and as a survivor herself. Six years ago, at age 37, Dr. Gonzalez was diagnosed with stage IIB triple-negative breast cancer. “I went through chemotherapy, surgery and then radiation,” she explains. “Because I tested positive for a genetic mutation, I elected to have bilateral mastectomies.”
That, in turn, brought about a career redirection. Dr. Gonzalez left her practice as a vascular surgeon and retrained to become a breast surgeon, ultimately joining the breast cancer care team at City of Hope, one of the largest cancer research and treatment organizations in the United States.
Through a half-decade collaboration between Providence Little Company of Mary and City of Hope, patients have access to world-class cancer specialists like Dr. Gonzalez while receiving treatment in the South Bay.
Here are five critical breast cancer facts from Dr. Gonzalez:
1: There are breast-cancer risk factors you control. “There are risk factors you can modify,” says Dr. Gonzalez. “Regular exercise and eating a healthy diet are known to reduce both risk of getting breast cancer and of its recurring. And, of course, practicing abstinence from smoking and moderate alcohol intake—no more than two or three glasses of wine a week.” She also cautions against the extended use of hormone replacement therapy in menopause, especially estrogen-progesterone combination therapy.
2: There are risk factors you don’t control. Among the factors that increase breast cancer risk is this obvious one: being female. Starting menstruation before age 12 and entering menopause after age 50 add risk as well. Never having given birth also increases your chances of developing breast cancer, Dr. Gonzalez notes. And it’s all for the same hormonal reason: your breast tissue’s lifetime exposure to your body’s naturally produced estrogen.
3: Screenings are really, really important. “We have mammography now that’s so good at early detection that you can potentially catch breast cancer early enough that you can de-escalate treatment. For example, you may not need chemotherapy,” says Dr. Gonzalez.
But early detection works, she emphasizes, only if you go for regular annual screenings starting at age 40.
4: Be aware of your own individual risk. The much-cited lifetime breast cancer risk of 1 in 8 women isn’t meaningful for making personal decisions. Screening procedures are different for average-risk and high-risk women, so it’s important to work with your doctor to assess and understand what your unique profile is.
5: The care decisions are ultimately yours. “I’m about empowering the patient to make her own decision,” says Dr. Gonzalez. For a high-risk patient, especially one with a genetic mutation, the decision may involve a prophylactic mastectomy. For a newly diagnosed patient, it may be the choice between a mastectomy and a lumpectomy. “The best thing we can do is to provide education,” she says.
To schedule a mammogram or for info about breast care diagnostics, call the Women’s Imaging Center at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center Torrance.
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