Breast cancer ‘not a death sentence’

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancer diagnoses in Lycoming County, according to officials at UPMC Susquehanna’s Cancer Center. As with any cancer diagnosis, patients facing breast cancer may feel devastated.

But try not to fear the worst, said Dr. Susan Branton, of UPMC’s Breast Health Center.

“We have made huge strides in the prognosis for breast cancer patients in the last 10 to 15 years,” she said. “It’s not a death sentence.”

The most common types of breast cancer are ductile, characterized by a discreet mass, and lobular, characterized by small lumps that blend in with other textures of the breast. The differences between tumors caused by these cancers only can be seen under a microscope, Branton said.

Treatment typically is a mixture of surgery and radiation. Sometimes chemotherapy is necessary. Other ways of treating breast cancer include hormone blocking and making healthy lifestyle modifications, she said.

The type and length of treatment depends on the type of breast cancer, according to Branton. Treatment could be complete in three months or it could last years. Hormone blocking in particular can take from five to 10 years, she said.

Hormone blocking is the intravenous introduction of drugs meant to modify the growth factor of cancer cells. Though treatment can take some time, different types of hormone blocking have proved themselves valuable.

“Immunotherapies have been a huge godsend for patients,” Branton said of a type of hormone treatment that kick-starts the immune system into battling cancer cells more efficiently.

Symptoms of breast cancer include lumps in the breast, changes to the surface of the breast such as indentations, nipple discharge and skin pulling or puckering.

“A majority of breast cancers are painless,” Branton said. “But there are some types, especially if growing quickly, that can cause painful symptoms.”

Breast cancer is most commonly found in women over the age of 40, but can affect men and younger women as well. It’s rare, Branton said, but people under the age of 20 have been diagnosed with the disease before.

Breast cancer also can be hereditary.

“We do have a fair amount of genetic lines predisposed to breast cancer in the area,” she said.

While treatment and lifestyle changes are important, Branton said every patient is different and so are their needs. The most important thing is to have support and for patients to take care of themselves emotionally.

“This is a process you have to gear yourself up for one step at a time,” she said. “Try not to panic at all the what-ifs. You have to live in the moment and take each day as it comes.”

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