Since 1985, the month of October has been designated as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Originally, the American Cancer Society partnered with the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries to promote mammograms as the most effective tool to fight breast cancer. Today, the month of October is a time to not only promote breast screening but to reflect on trends in research, prevention and treatment.
Breast cancer has been documented in history since ancient times; 3500 years ago, the ancient Egyptians documented breast cancer as bulging tumors with no cure. Over the following centuries, physicians and scientists hypothesized various causes of and treatments for breast cancer, though not very accurately or successfully. By the end of the 1800s through the 1930s, radical mastectomies, where breast tissue, chest muscle and nodes in the armpits were removed in one block, became the treatment that allowed women to survive longer. But because it left them disfigured and led to other serious complications, many women chose not to undergo that procedure.
As researchers learned more about the cancerous tumors, new treatments began to emerge in the early 1930s. Radiation, for example, became a new norm for treatment where just the tumor is removed, radium needles are inserted in the breast tissue but the breast is left intact. By the 1970s, new hormone therapy drugs were approved by the FDA that managed how estrogen works in the body; the drugs were able to block estrogen from connecting with breast cancer cells, thereby keeping the cancerous cells from multiplying.
One of the biggest advancements in breast cancer treatment came 25 years ago – the development of Herceptin - which was deemed ‘the drug that changed the breast cancer treatment landscape.’ Cancer treatment before Herceptin was often described as ‘throwing in a bomb and hoping they would kill more bad cells than good cells’. Herceptin changed that – it was a drug that was developed to target only cancer cells and leave the healthy ones alone. The lessons learned in the development of Herceptin have been carried through to research for many other cancers as well.
This year, it’s estimated that nearly 300,000 women and over 50,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer. But despite the extensive research, understanding and management of breast cancer, it’s expected that over 40,000 women will die from breast cancer this year alone. Routine mammograms and breast examines remain the best way to detect breast cancer early. The FDA recommends that every woman begin routine mammogram screenings by the age of 40, though some may start earlier if they are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
For a long time, breast cancer was a taboo subject – breasts were an intimate part of a woman’s body and a symbol of motherhood that were not to be discussed. By removing the stigma, increasing awareness and talking about breast health openly during this national month of awareness year after year, millions of women have been able to prevent, fight and, most importantly, survive breast cancer.