Wendy Shirk enjoys helping newly diagnosed pink sisters with their journeys and is thankful to be cancer-free now.
October 2020: A busy wife and mother jumps into the shower one busy Monday morning to get ready to drop off the kids at school and rush off to work. There are a million things on her mind, and she is mentally running down her to-do list as she lathers up. As she begins to wash off, she feels it. She freezes. Her blood runs cold. It’s a lump.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the campaign was created to educate women about the need for early detection.
What is breast cancer? Breast cancer is a disease in which malignant cells form in the tissues of the breast. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Most of those women will never uncover what caused the cancer, only the certainty that the cell’s DNA was damaged.
One thing that women can know for sure is what risk factors can contribute to the disease. One is drinking alcohol. That’s an easy one to cure, just don’t drink. Risk factors a woman can’t or may not be able to change is increasing age, early menstruation, late menopause, a first pregnancy after age 30, no pregnancies at all, or a family history of breast cancer. Those risk factors don’t necessarily mean that a woman is doomed to get the disease; it is only an increased risk. That’s good news. More good news is that well over half of all breast cancer cases are caught while the tumor is still localized. The survival rate of a localized cancer five years out is nearly 100 percent.
There are two types of breast tumors. One is benign and won’t need treatment or removal unless it continues to grow, crowding into other organs or causing pain. The other type is malignant tumors, which need a biopsy to determine its aggressiveness. Tumors are graded on a scale of one to three. The rating is determined by the severity of the mutation of the cell and how rapidly it divides.
So, what can women do to fend off the disease?
Eat a low-fat diet. Eating fruits and vegetables helps reduce the risk of cancer because high fat can cause estrogen to develop and feeds cancer cells.
Walk 30 minutes per day. Women can boost their immune system through exercise.
Give up alcohol. Research shows that as little as one drink per day can increase the risk.
Take a break from oral contraceptives after five years of continual use. Taking hormones in an ongoing manner can increase the risk.
Death caused by breast cancer has declined 40 percent since the late 80s because of early detection. What form of detection should a woman use? There are some choices a woman can make depending on where she is on the detection journey.
Mammograms, which are an x-ray of the breast.
If a lump is found in a mammogram, the next step is an ultrasound. Doctors use sound waves to uncover if the breast lump is full of liquid or if it is a mass.
An MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, can help a doctor to determine if the lump is normal or abnormal tissue helping to gain a detailed picture of the area.
Biopsy is a method in which a doctor may insert a needle into the lump to draw out either the liquid or cell sample to examine under a microscope to tell for certain if the tissue is cancerous or not. Four out of five women who have a biopsy do not have cancer.
If it is found that the cancer test comes out positive, then further lab work will be needed. One of the most common tests is checking the tumor cells for hormone receptors. Certain hormones can trigger growth in a cell. The second test is the HER2/neu test. This determines how the breast cells grow and divide. If they are dividing too often and growing too much or too fast, that’s a problem. The results of these tests can help the doctor determine what treatment to use.
Common treatments used today are:
Radiation is used to kill any mutated cells.
Since some hormones can cause cancer cells to develop and grow, using hormone blockers can starve the abnormal cells.
Target therapy uses drugs that block cancer cell growth.
Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer. Surgeons remove the lump and surrounding tissue in the breast, whether using a lumpectomy, removing just the lump, or mastectomy, which is removing the entire breast, chest wall and lymph nodes.
One Tulsa woman is now on the other side of the breast cancer fight. Dr. Wendy Shirk, board-certified coach of Shirk Consulting, LLC, takes a lighthearted approach to her challenging journey even though tormenting days were very near and present.
“I was shocked when I got the phone call on Valentine’s Day...I had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma; I had breast cancer,” Shirk said. “I opted for a double mastectomy with reconstruction. I was fortunate that I didn’t need radiation or chemotherapy, unlike so many others. My faith, family, and friends sustained me during my journey. I learned to accept help from others—not easy with my personality—as they brought over delicious meals and watched movies in bed with me. My friends formed a support system around me; we called it the Best Friends Boobie Doobie Club, aka The Breasties. I never felt alone. I’m thankful to be cancer-free now. In my coaching practice, I am enjoying helping newly-diagnosed pink sisters with their journeys. I’m part of a sisterhood with strong bonds that will never be broken.”
What most people don’t realize is that men get breast cancer too, but chances are much lower than in women, only one in 1,000.
The good news is that there is help and support. Most health insurance policies cover annual mammograms. Also, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. has provided detailed information at www.nationalbreastcancer.org/.
Oklahoma Breast Screening Resources
American Cancer Society in Oklahoma
The American Cancer Society in Oklahoma is rich in resources for women facing breast cancer treatment and recovery. They will assist in referring Oklahoma-based services and programs. For more information, call their hotline at 800.227.2345 or visit their website at: www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer.html
Oklahoma Project Woman
The Oklahoma Project Woman was formed to provide breast cancer screenings and treatment for women with no health insurance and limited finances. For more information, call their toll-free number at 877.550.7465 or visit the Oklahoma Project Woman website at: www.oklahomaprojectwoman.org/
Oklahoma Health Care Authority
Women who may qualify can receive assistance for their breast screenings and treatment through the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA) who partners with the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH), the Cherokee Nation, the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS).
The first step is to find a qualified screening provider in the Tulsa area by calling:
Oklahoma State Department of Health: (866) 550-5585;
Cherokee Nation: (800) 256-0671 ext. 5442 or (918) 453-5442;
Kaw Nation: (580) 362-1039 ext. 228
For more information, visit the Oklahoma Cares website at: www.okhca.org/individuals.aspx?id=130&menu=42&parts=7477_7479_7481
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