Komen executive urges breast cancer awareness

Anne Morris, CEO of Komen Connecticut, came to the Greenwich YMCA this week to stress the need for breast cancer awareness, bringing statistics and tips for better health. — Kait Shea photo

Anne Morris, CEO of Komen Connecticut, came to the Greenwich YMCA this week to stress the need for breast cancer awareness, bringing statistics and tips for better health.
— Kait Shea photo

It was time to think pink at the YWCA of Greenwich on Monday night when Anne Morris, CEO of Komen Connecticut, an affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, gave a presentation on the importance of breast cancer awareness.

According to Ms. Morris, Komen Connecticut has an agreement with the national Komen organization that allows the use of its name, but is a completely separate corporation. Ms. Morris reports to a local board of directors who make the chief decisions regarding the affiliate, which is the largest nonprofit funder of breast cancer research in the state, she said. The organization provides approximately $1 million in local, community-based grants on a yearly basis, she added.

As part of October’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Ms. Morris’s presentation focused on breast cancer screening and risk factors, as well as some statistics that highlighted the prevalence of the disease. One of the greatest risk factors for developing breast cancer, Ms. Morris said, occurs in individuals with either a BRCA 1 or  BRCA 2 gene that is mutated.

A simple blood test will verify whether someone carries the mutated gene, but at roughly $3,000 per test, insurance companies will often not cover the procedure unless the person being tested has two immediate family members who have had breast cancer, she said. Still, it’s well worth looking into, especially for women of certain ethnic backgrounds who have a higher incidence of breast cancer. Women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, as well as those who were born and live in the Bahamas, for example, have a much higher rate of the disease than women of other backgrounds, Ms. Morris said.

A number of other risk factors contribute to a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer, however, Ms. Morris said. They include having dense breast tissue, never having children, having a first child when over the age of 30, a family history of the disease, starting the menstrual cycle after age 12, going through menopause after age 55, and gaining a significant amount of weight following menopause. And since breast cancer is often linked to higher-than-average levels of estrogen, and certain kinds of breast cancer feed on the hormone, the risk factors involving a woman’s menstrual cycle are likely a result of her body overproducing estrogen, Ms. Morris said.

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 40,000 people will die from breast cancer this year. Breast cancer itself, however, is not fatal, because breasts can be removed, according to Ms. Morris. It’s when the disease reaches stage 4 and metastasizes to other vital organs that it becomes deadly, she said. For most breast cancer patients, those organs include the liver, brain, lung, and bones.

Fortunately, Ms. Morris said, early detection of the disease offers extraordinary odds for survival. In 1982, she said, the five-year rate of survival for early stage breast cancer was 74%. Today, the survival rate is more than 98%, verifying that early detection is what makes the disease most treatable and is the key to saving lives, she said.

To detect breast cancer at any stage, however, annual mammograms are vital for women age 40 and over, Ms. Morris said. Women should have initial or “baseline” mammograms sometime between the ages of 35 and 40 if they are at average risk for the disease, so that doctors know what a woman’s breasts look like at that point in her life. Then, at age 40, yearly exams become crucial. Women with a family history of the disease, however, may benefit from having mammograms 10 years prior to when their family member developed the disease, depending on one’s doctor, Ms. Morris said.

For women with dense breast tissue, however, a mammogram isn’t the only procedure necessary to monitor for the disease, according to Ms. Morris. While a mammogram is the only way to determine breast density, those whose breasts are categorized as being comprised of 50% dense tissue or more will additionally need an ultrasound for adequate detection of the disease, she said, because breast cancer is extremely difficult to see via mammogram. In fact, Ms. Morris said, Komen Connecticut, in partnership with an organization called Are You Dense, passed a state law in 2009 that requires doctors to tell a woman if she has greater than 50% dense breast tissue for that precise reason.

Whether it is a mammogram, ultrasound or other form of screening, however, no medical test is 100% accurate, Ms. Morris said. Accordingly, Komen Connecticut urges women not only to conduct regular self breast exams but to know what’s normal for their individual bodies.

All women have lumps in their breasts, but it is crucial that each woman knows her own body well enough to know if there is a new growth or if one has changed. If that is the case, Ms. Morris said, there is no time to wait. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime and there is no room for delaying treatment, she said.

Ms. Morris also shared a number of facts and statistics throughout her presentation that many audience members found surprising. The greatest risk factors for developing breast cancer, for example, are simply being female and growing older. All women are at a risk, regardless of their age, race or family history, Ms. Morris said, and only 5% to 10% of women with a family history develop the disease. And though men also develop the disease, the female to male ratio is 100:1, although the male mortality rate is higher, she said.

In addition, Ms. Morris noted that the highest incidence of all cancers for U.S. women is breast cancer and an American woman is newly diagnosed with the disease every three minutes. Perhaps even more shocking, she said, is the fact that Connecticut has the second highest incidence of breast cancer in the country, with Massachusetts in the lead and Rhode Island coming in third.

Fortunately for Connecticut residents, 75% of the funds raised by Komen Connecticut go to local, community-based programs in the area, benefiting people of all means, regardless of their ability to pay for procedures like mammograms, Ms. Morris said. The remaining 25% goes to research, and the national Komen organization receives none of the funding, she said.

To learn more about Komen Connecticut, visit Komenct.org.


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