Real talk about women, breast cancer and anxiety

October 13, 2017 Providence Health Team

Interview with Alison Conlin, MD, Director of the Breast Cancer Medical Oncology Program at the Providence Breast Care Clinic, on easing fears associated with a breast cancer diagnosis.

Breast cancer. Hearing these words from your clinician or doctor can immediately and drastically change your life. It can knock even the most levelheaded person off balance. All women are at risk of developing breast cancer at some point in their life, but it is most often diagnosed after menopause.

What is (and isn’t) breast cancer?

“Breast cancer starts when cells in the breast begin to change and grow uncontrollably,” says Alison Conlin, MD. “By contrast, healthy breast cells have a specific function, like milk production. When they have fulfilled their function, they turn off and die, which is the body’s way of self-regulating the growth of cells and keeping them healthy. Unfortunately, breast cancer cells lack the important off switch and form a tumor.”

Many types of breast cancer can cause lumps or changes in the breast, but not all lumps are cancer. However, if you find a lump or notice another change in your breast, you should always get it checked out by your doctor or clinician. Most breast lumps are not cancerous but may indicate an increased risk of developing breast cancer in the future.

“Many women whom I treat display extreme anxiety, and rightly so,” says Dr. Conlin. “What I try to do right away is educate and set realistic expectations based on their unique situation. I like to remind my early-stage patients that no one dies from breast cancer alone. If the cancer is localized and hasn’t metastasized to nearby tissues or organs, it is not life-threatening. This helps alleviate a lot of the anxiety, making it easier to focus on the treatment plan.”

Tips for protecting yourself from breast cancer

All men and women should do regular self-exams. And women, in particular, can follow these tips to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Exercise regularly (at least 3 times per week)
  • Avoid tobacco products
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Limit the use of hormone replacement therapies
  • Have children (especially before the age of 30)
  • Breastfeed your children
  • Schedule mammograms as recommended by your health care provider

“Awareness is also an important protective factor,” remarked Dr. Conlin. “Being aware of breast changes, like a lump, skin changes or something else can help reduce your risk of a potentially life-threatening form of breast cancer. So take time once a month for a breast self-examination; it’s your first method for early detection.”

Societal support for breast cancer

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time when breast cancer is back in the public eye. It is the perfect time to spread awareness about the disease and educate people about its signs and symptoms.

“Unfortunately, it is also a time when celebrities take center stage to share their experiences,” Dr. Conlin says. “I think this often pressures women into making decisions about their health and treatment that may not be right for them. I would like to see society support women who are suffering from breast cancer and encourage them to seek individualized treatment based on their medical needs. Every person and every cancer is unique—and the treatment must be tailored to meet their needs.”

All women should talk to a clinician to determine when and how often they should get screened for breast cancer. We have a high-risk clinic available that would be happy to perform a risk assessment and provide a prevention plan. If you or a loved one has been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, find a care team that supports you physically, mentally and emotionally. The medical oncologists at the Providence Breast Care Clinic are here to help you develop the treatment plan that is right for you.

Learn more about our Breast Care Clinic in Portland, Oregon.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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