Caring Currents

Urgent Call to Catch Breast Cancer Early: Here's How

Last updated: Mar 25, 2009

We're hearing a lot about the urgent need to catch breast cancer early, thanks to the brave testimony of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who came forward this week with the story of her personal battle with breast cancer as she introduced legislation to fund resources for early detection.

My family is experiencing the tragedy that happens when breast cancer is not caught early. Together with my children I'm mourning the recent loss of their grandmother, my ex-mother-in-law, who died of metastatic breast cancer two months ago.

Karen's cancer had already spread to her spine by the time it was detected; it was severe back pain that drove her to see her doctor, at which point the tumor was discovered. She fought the cancer bravely, beating it back to gain many years of fulfilling, productive life, before the cancer gained the upper hand.

But the sad fact is that once breast cancer spreads to the bones, lungs, brain, and other areas, it's rarely curable; in most cases, all that's possible is to gain time. And battling cancer as it takes root in first one part of the body, then another, is a terrible, devastating process. So to protect ourselves and our loved ones, we need to focus on catching it early.

The need for early detection of breast cancer recurrence made news this week as well, with an important study in Annals of Oncology showing that when a secondary breast cancer is caught early, before symptoms appear, a woman's chance of survival improves by 30 to 50 percent.

The message? Women who've already been treated for breast cancer need to be especially vigilant about ongoing surveillance to watch for new tumors. Here, some of the lesser-known signs of breast cancer to watch for. (Of course, a lump in the breast -- any lump -- is a reason to call the doctor immediately.)

"¢ skin on the breast that's red, blotchy, or itchy
"¢ cellulite-like dimpled skin on the breast
"¢ scaly or crusty nipple
"¢ a sore or tender spot under the arm
"¢ swollen lymph nodes under the arm or in the neck
"¢ back pain
"¢ bone pain, which feels like a deep ache
"¢ shortness of breath, dry cough -- similar to bronchitis
"¢ chest or lung pain
"¢ hip or pelvic fracture
"¢ weight loss or loss of appetite

Let's take the tears on capital hill to heart and make sure that we, along with our mothers, sisters, daughters, and grandmothers, take every symptom seriously, and get it checked out.