This follows on the heels of my last post, which discussed a couple of things that doctors say to cancer patients that I wish could be handled differently. Today’s post is specific to breast cancer and deals with menopausal status.
Okay, okay, the last time I wrote about this I concluded that healthful living was important regardless of whether you were staring down breast cancer before or after menopause. But I need to back up a bit, because there’s more that needs to be said.
It is a fact that the risk factors we hear about the ones associated with postmenopausal breast cancer, as are the recommendations for decreasing your risks. It took literally months for me to fully comprehend this.
Wish I’d known that earlier! Following my diagnosis, I beat myself up trying to understand what I did “wrong”, when in fact, I was doing everything “right”. I hadn’t worried about breast cancer because according to the informational breast self-exam card hanging in my shower, my risk was super-low.
Well, yeah, it was. For postmenopausal breast cancer.
It was only later, talking to my clinical counselor, that she described younger women at informational sessions for new breast cancer patients, looking dazed and not understanding why they were there. Vegetarians, non-drinkers, non-smokers, active exercisers, lean and fit. Isn’t that the lifestyle that we’re supposed to live in order to reduce our cancer risk? You mean it might not work?
The reality is that all bets are off for premenopausal breast cancer. The average age at diagnosis is 63, which means that there are a lot more postmenopausal women with cancer who have been studied, and so there’s more that we know about them. And that’s why everyone talks about them. For them, higher bodyweight is positively correlated with development of cancer, but higher weight in premenopausal women has a mildly protective effect. What’s up with that?!
I was already a full year into this blog, which I started a year after finishing my chemo, and I was STILL ranting about those stupid risk factors that mean nothing. But the truth was that I hadn’t yet connected the dots about menopausal status and cancer risk. My medical team kept saying things like “you’re still young”, and I didn’t understand what they meant by that, until my clinical counselor mentioned that things didn’t go as anticipated for younger (read: premenopausal) women.
So my anxiety about what I did to bring cancer upon myself could have been brought down a few notches (and my early posts on this blog would have been less acrimonious) had I known that the preventative information is aimed at women in a different stage of life.
Instead, I was frantically asking, “What should I do now? What should I change?” and was perplexed by the response: “Just keep doing everything that you’re doing!” “But that’s what gave me cancer!” (Obviously, it wasn’t, but in my mind, there was some preventative measure I hadn’t taken that left a crack open for cancer to squirm through.)
So, okay, no one knows exactly what causes breast cancer in an individual, and this is not the post to attempt tackling that question. But truly, it would help if doctors would admit that the view is *even* fuzzier if you haven’t yet gone through menopause. Psychologically, I would have been able to cut myself some slack, and perhaps it would have, just a teensy bit, eased that frustrating sense of helplessness.
This is probably a good place to remind everyone that, even with everything we know about cancer and how it develops, there’s still so much we don’t know. Genes, environment, the alignment of the planets…who knows where the blame really lies?