According to American Cancer Society statistics, more than 4,000
Maryland women received a breast cancer diagnosis in 2004. That year,
female breast cancer claimed 760 lives, more than any other cause except
heart disease, lung cancer and colorectal cancer. Pink "awareness"
ribbons are everywhere, but there are also concrete things we as women
can do to protect our lives from breast cancer.
"The best thing that we know (to do) at this point is regular mammogram
screening starting at age forty, then yearly throughout life," says Dr.
Laurence Polsky, a gynecologist with offices in St. Mary's County.
"Mammograms alone miss about ten percent. For the rest, the only way to
find them is to feel them. Deaths decrease by 20-25% for women who use
both screening methods."
The press has often focused in recent years on genetic risk factors for
breast cancer. While a family history of breast cancer does increase a
woman's risk of cancer, according to Dr. Polsky, only five percent of
cases are clearly linked to a genetic component.
Lifestyle factors can influence whether or not a woman develops breast
cancer. Breastfeeding seems to have some protective effect, as does
pregnancy before age thirty, but breast cancer prevention isn't a reason
to decide to have a baby.
Race can be a factor, although even there the facts are a bit murky:
white women have the highest rate of occurrence of breast cancer;
African-American women are less likely to develop breast cancer, but
more likely to die of it. There is little professional consensus on why
that should be. Is it truly genetic? Or is it because African-American
women (and Hispanics, as well) statistically have been shown to be less
likely than whites to go for regular breast cancer screenings? Women who
come to America from Asia have a lower risk of breast cancer, although
that risk rises, the longer Asian-American women live in the U.S.
Obesity is one risk factor with a clear connection to breast cancer. The
heavier a woman is, the more likely she is to develop breast cancer in
her lifetime. Current theory on the weight-cancer connection suggests
that women with more fat deposits, especially after menopause, are
bathing their body in estrogen converted from those fat cells. "It's
just one more reason to try to keep your weight at a reasonable level,"
says Dr. Polsky.
More and more local women are taking advantage of cancer treatment
programs right here in Southern Maryland. Area hospitals can provide
cancer surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation close to home, so that long
commutes and hard-to-contact doctors don't add to the stress of a cancer
"There's nothing people do up the road that we don't do here," says Dana
Russell, a nurse practitioner in the St. Mary's Hospital Outpatient
Infusion Service (OPIS) department. "We pick up the pieces, and know our
patients by their names. We treat the whole family, because it affects
the whole family."
According to Nurse Russell, those close connections with caregivers can
make a real difference in the recovery of cancer patients. Support from
family, friends, and fellow cancer patients can help. And, as always,
laughter is the best medicine.
"We have a lot of humor, here. People come depressed, but they don't
leave here depressed," she says.
When chemotherapy causes hair loss, Russell and the rest of the OPIS
staff offer to add hair dye to the chemo solution. Monday "Chemo Bingo"
sessions give patients a way to pass the time while their medications
are administered. And when all else fails, there are special
"We ask a woman what her favorite restaurant is, and then hand her
husband a prescription for an Outback steak dinner and baked potato.
Tell him she can't wash clothes. It's still very traumatic, but you've
got to find humor to cope with disease," Russell explains.
Breast cancer care in Southern Maryland is personal, and
up-to-the-minute. Calvert Memorial Hospital is one of only sixty
facilities nationwide to participate in a current Roche trial of drug
combinations previously used individually.
Mary Emma Middleton, of the Calvert Memorial Hospital Cancer Helpline,
is excited about the work CMH is doing to improve cancer treatment for
women far beyond the local scene. "We can be small," says Ms. Middleton,
"but we can be mighty."
Of course, cancer care goes far beyond research and medication. Southern
Maryland is home to support groups for cancer patients and survivors,
and cooperates with nationwide programs such as the American Cancer
Society's "Look good, Feel Better" hair and skin care seminars.
Civista Medical Center sponsors an annual Cancer Survivor's Walk and
Reception as part of the American Cancer Society Relay for Life. Each
October, Civista also sponsors Surviving Cancer: A Photographic Essay
display. These and other events are refreshing reminders that a cancer
diagnosis isn't as catastrophic as it was generations ago. Women in
Southern Maryland today can say "the C word,' face their cancer, get
treatment and work toward a healthy future.
Cancer Survivor's Walk and Reception
American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, 888-332-4847
Civista On the Line
Physician referral and help line. There, you can also learn about
the hospital's new infusion center, which provides all kinds of
intravenous medication including chemotherapy. 1-888-332-4847
Surviving Cancer: A Photographic Essay
Breast, colon and prostate cancer survivors are featured in this
event, which emphasized early detection and treatment. The display will
be at the Charles County Government Building in La Plata October 11-18,
at the Richard Clark Senior Center in La Plata October 18-25, and at the
Hughesville Jazzercize Fitness Center October 25-November 1.
A support group for women experiencing or having experienced breast
cancer. Contact Anne Griffith, 301-932-2942 or Evelyn Lavorgna,
301-934-8513 for location information.
St. Mary's Hospital Cancer Support Group
Support for patients with any kind of cancer, their family,
caregivers and friends. Meets monthly in the hospital Atrium to discuss
relevant topics. 301-475-6070
Calvert Memorial Hospital Women's Wellness
Acupuncture, massage, biofeedback, breast cancer support groups, and
free cosmetology services. Case managers help you understand your
treatment options and get the help you need. 410-286-7992
Calvert Memorial Hospital Toll-Free Cancer Help Line
1-877-CMH CANCER (264-2622). CMH also provides an extensive cancer
resource library, with an emphasis on breast cancer.
Calvert Memorial Hospital Keep Well Center
Provides free mammograms and pap smears to financially qualified
Maryland residents over 40 without insurance coverage.
Look Good, Feel Better
Hands-on beauty workshops to get your self-image back. Wigs
available. Gail Harkins, 410-414-4571
Calvert Memorial Hospital cancer support groups:
Megan Toffey, 410-414-4730
Maryland Regional Cancer Care
301-705-5802, Advanced Radiation Oncology services.
Calvert County Health Department, 410-535-5400
Charles County Health Department, 301-870-2691
St. Mary's County Health Department, 301-475-4391
American Cancer Society-sponsored support group
Marcia Shapiro, 301-475-6760
Plastic Surgery of Southern Maryland
Helps build back your confidence with reconstructive surgery. Dr.