Looking To The Future – How Technology Has Changed The Way We See Breast Cancer

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and it’s a good time to reflect on how this disease has affected our society, and more specifically our lives and those around us. Judging from the statistics alone, practically every woman in North America either knows somebody in her life that has been diagnosed with this cancer, or will be diagnosed herself. As of January 2005 Stats Canada reported that 1 in 111 women had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The Susan G. Komen website reports that there will be an estimated 230, 480 new cases of breast cancer diagnoses in the United States in 2011. Second only to skin cancer in its incidence, and to lung cancer in the number of lives it takes, breast cancer has become a huge focus of attention and more importantly research. Yet, I have seen a shift in the attitude that women take towards breast cancer, compared to other cancers. There now seems to be more optimism and courage from women as they approach their battle with this nemesis. The reason behind this shifting perception of breast cancer is surely technology, and the ways in which it has influenced three main areas: detection, treatment, and communication.

Photo courtesy of Charlie P Barker

DETECTION: Current recommendations are that women with no other risk factors (such as family history, abnormal breast exams, or personal history of cancer) get screening mammograms every 2 years between the ages of 50 and 74. Mammography is a technology that has drastically changed the way the health care world and the public approach breast cancer. The idea that a routine screening test can pick up abnormal cell growth beneath the surface that otherwise would not be detected until it grows into a full blown tumor is fundamental to the increasing survival rates associated with breast cancer. Technology and science have also propelled cancer research to a whole new level, which could have profound effects on the future of cancer detection. For instance, the discovery of the breast cancer susceptibility genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) and their role in some breast cancers presents new potential for detecting breast cancer risk before the disease even appears. Understanding the role of abnormal genes and/or genetic mutations in abnormal cell growth which leads to cancers has enormous consequences for treatment as well. Ultimately, the role of technology in helping us understand and thereby look for early signs of breast cancer has been pivotal in saving countless lives of our mothers, sisters and daughters by getting them the right treatment at the right time.
TREATMENT: Recently, on the new daytime talk show “The Talk” many celebrity women spoke out about their own experiences with breast cancer, and specifically their roads to recovery. Jaclyn Smith and Dr. Kristi Funk emphasized how the customized, targeted therapies that are offered today are critical in the fight against breast cancer. These new and advanced therapies are making recovery and full remission a more achievable goal than it ever has been before. What targeted therapy means is that radiation and chemotherapy has evolved through the help of science and technology so that the treatments can be more localized to cancerous cells and less harmful to the healthy normal cells of the body. The destruction of these healthy cells alongside cancer cells during treatment is a big concern for healthcare professionals because often it is the loss of healthy cells that leads to further illnesses and repercussions even when the cancer cells have been treated. Technology has also been a key factor in developing the surgical process so that removing tumors and cancerous cells can be a safer and less invasive procedure than ever before.
COMMUNICATION: A common thread in all of the conversations with my aunt and friends who have battled breast cancer is that the support of their loved ones, and the right information at the right time were key factors in helping them get through this difficult ordeal. Once again, technology has revolutionized the way that we can connect with people and gather information. For example, I did all of my research for this blog using online resources (Stats Canada, online research journals, and websites of organizations involved with breast cancer). The information that is made available to the public about the latest innovations and treatments has made a disease shrouded in doubt, fear and uncertainty become a little more transparent. Of course, I would always advise that any individuals use their media and internet literacy to make sure that the website they are using is legitimate- make sure you know who the author is, and any facts are supported with evidence that is also readily available for you to evaluate. Media has allowed breast cancer to come in to the light and has raised awareness and support for this disease that have been crucial towards the research and treatment advances that have been made. The internet and social media such as Facebook, blogs, and internet chat rooms have been a blessing for breast cancer patients and survivors who search for understanding and the unique support that can come from others who have gone through a similar experience.

Photo of mammography machine courtesy of Kristie Wells

Overall, from a health care perspective, it’s truly exciting and inspiring how technology has helped give individuals facing this difficult disease more hope and more results. From the perspective of a woman who fears the diagnosis of breast cancer in my future, and who has seen her friends and family cope with the same, it’s a little less scary knowing that technology is on our side and shows great promise for the future of this disease.