Working as a radiation oncologist for more than 40 years has provided me with a unique lens into how women make decisions about their health. Recently, a study in Nature Communications caught my eye, but also struck a nerve. Researchers discovered that women who carry a specific genetic variant are 40 percent less likely to have breast cancer than others.
About one in five Latinas in the United States carry the variant, making this group of women less likely to face a breast-cancer diagnosis. However, this news shouldn’t provide a false sense of security for Latinas.
At the Innovative Cancer Institute, almost 70 percent of the patients I treat are Latina. Each day I encounter women with similar experiences to share, yet all with unique cases. I often see Latinas, especially older women, putting off a trip to the doctor. It’s not unusual for women to come into the office without even telling family members about their concerns. These women sometimes have very large tumors and advanced cancer by the time they see me. They have more advanced cancers and less access to healthcare than other women in the United States. By the time they visit a doctor, the treatment options may be more limited and more aggressive than treatment options for breast cancer caught in the early stages.
I strongly advise Latinas, and all women, to take health into your own hands. Undergoing regular mammograms is a simple, yet effective, way to monitor breast health.
Mammograms can be used to check for breast cancer even if there is no sign or symptom of the disease. Studies show that mammograms can help reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer among women ages 40 to 74, especially for those over 50. Put simply, mammograms save lives.
However, many family doctors do not continue to perform mammograms for women over 65. I encourage every woman to continue with regular mammograms. If your doctor doesn’t suggest a mammogram, ask for one.
It’s important to speak up and ensure you are being provided with the best care. Do not hold off on taking care of yourself. If you find a lump in your breast, visit your doctor.
Delaying examination could mean reduced treatment options. Having an understanding of a wide range of options is extremely important.
If diagnosed with breast cancer, do not be paralyzed by the word “cancer.” There is hope. Many Latinas that I treat initially thought that a mastectomy was the only option. However, for those diagnosed early there are options.
For some women, especially older women who are diagnosed early, I often suggest breast-conserving surgery paired with five-day brachytherapy. Breast brachytherapy delivers a dose of radiation from within the breast, reducing radiation exposure to healthy tissue, allowing for better cosmetic results and fewer side effects.
While a diagnosis can be earth-shattering, I suggest every woman seek an additional opinion. I’ve collaborated with the BC5 Project, an organization dedicated to educating women about their breast cancer options, to help encourage women to take an active role in choosing their treatments.
Do not just accept what you hear the first time. Breast cancer is a chronic disease that needs to be treated by an entire team. Question the doctors you work with and ensure the treatment is right for you.
The rates of breast cancer for Latinas may be lower than for other women in the United States, but it is more important than ever for every woman to get serious about her breast health.
Dr. Beatriz Amendola is the medical director at the Innovative Cancer Institute in Miami and a participant in The BC5 Project.