With over 200,000 new cases of breast cancer in North America annually (according to the American Cancer Society's 2005 figures), it is not surprising that women are exploring a variety of potential preventives and treatments.
At a Breast Health Forum held in August 2005 in Sebastopol - 'Taking Matters Into Our Hands' - some 100 women listened to presentations on breast cancer, breast self-examination, exercises for breast help, thermography, nutrition, anti-ageing and other supplements that may prevent cancer. The presentation was organized by the Thermography Centre of Sonoma County.
According to the Breast Cancer Fund's recent study 'State of the Evidence', environmental toxins, especially exposure to ionising radiation, pesticides and other chemicals, pose a major - and often underplayed - factor in breast cancer.
Medical treatments have improved, reported Kate Mott, a nurse who works at the Women's Health Resource Centre in Santa Rosa run by Sutter, one of the biggest hospital conglomerates in the US. Mott was positively enthusiastic about progress in treating breast cancer. "Often patients don't have to have surgery," she said. "There are now different types of minimally low invasive biopsies."
She emphasized the safety and value of mammograms, assuring the audience that mammograms are the "the most legislated test in the US", exposing women to the equivalent of the radiation experienced in a cross-country aeroplane flight, or the same amount we receive from background radiation in three months.
"More young women who feel they are at risk of cancer are looking at removing breasts and ovaries before getting cancer," she reported. Breast reconstruction is now so advanced, "it's almost impossible to tell that it's been reconstructed," she enthused.
According to Mott, the American Cancer Society is no longer teaching breast self-exams because there's no evidence that it decreases the mortality from breast cancer, and a large study showed that women become more anxious when performing the exam "and anxiety is counter productive to the whole issue of cancer". Nevertheless, she recommended that women learn a new form of breast self-examination using the MammaCare method - touted as a more thorough technique, which allows you to identify smaller lumps than the usual method - which she demonstrated using breast-shaped latex cups.
The rest of the day's proceedings were dedicated to other forms of
prevention. Daya Fish literally took her breast health into her hands while demonstrating exercises to open and close the lymph capillaries. Her zesty presentation - "Get to know these guys!" she urged, cupping her breasts with her hands - inspired everyone to try the exercises.
Ayurvedic treatments, including salt scrubs and seaweed baths to cleanse the lymphatic system, were explained. Gabrielle Ridgeway discussed nutritional support and lifestyle recommendations for breast health and cancer prevention, including hormone detoxification programs.
Dr Cheri Quincy, a local osteopathic doctor, talked about bio-identical hormones for women in menopause. "Hormones are psychoactive," she said. Estrogen is like Prozac, progesterone is like Valium, and testosterone is like Speed.
Unlike hormones synthesized from the urine of pregnant mares, bio-identical hormones have the same molecular structure as women's natural hormones. They may be less likely to have the negative side-effects documented in the recent Women's Health Initiative study on Provera and Premarin (showing increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease and stroke after four years of therapy). "But bio-identicals have not been tested," Quincy said. She cautioned against using hormones in order to say young and sexy forever, emphasizing the value of "growing up when you go through menopause".
"I have a strong belief that we go through menopause for important social and cultural reasons," she said. Grandmothers provide a sense of stability for young children. "If we don't have grandmothers, society tends to be nuts. In the US, where we're all immigrants, the connection with generations of grandmother wisdom tends to be fairly truncated."
Quincy also discussed other anti-ageing formulas such as Human Growth Hormone and treatment for sleep disorders to protect memory and clarity in older women.
The breast health event was organized by Jody Potiker, founder of the new Thermography Centre of Sonoma County in Sebastopol, because "it's my passion and commitment to educate people about breast cancer and no one else seems to be doing it". She gave a presentation on the benefits of thermography for risk assessment of breast health. This technique uses infrared to analyze the heat given off by the breast.
In order to multiply rapidly, cancer cells create new blood vessels. Blood carries heat and these altered patterns can be imaged by the thermal imaging camera. Heat "says an abnormal process is going on. We can't say it's cancer. Either there's an unusual formation of blood vessels, or something causes the tissues to heat up. The cause may be trauma to the breast, inflammation, or benign breast disease."
Or cancer. Thermograms can pick up these patterns long before cancer would be detected by a mammogram. "It takes eight to 10 years before the cancer can be seen on a mammogram. Can we say it is cancerous? No, but we can say there is something going on here."
When the thermogram reveals unusual heat patterns, a mammogram is recommended, and even if it shows nothing, a second thermogram three months later will help determine how serious the condition may be. "Now you have the opportunity to see a naturopath or an acupuncturist who can recommend procedures for cleansing toxins, using supplements, making changes in diet or lifestyle."
But if there is a lump, it may need to be removed. "I slant a lot toward alternative treatments but I don't exclude conventional medicine," said the slim, vibrant Potiker, 44, who says she started having thermograms when she turned 40 "because I didn't want to irradiate my breasts". A chiropractor, she later took the training to administer the tests and opened her centre in 2004. The procedure is non-invasive and does not involve compressing the breast. She emphasized that thermograms are not diagnostic but rather a useful form of risk assessment that help you make valuable lifestyle changes in time to stop the cancer.
The women attending the event ranged from early middle age to post-menopause. "I left the seminar with so much knowledge. If we had more of that out there, women could be smarter with their own health issues," says Jan Kucker, 57. Kucker's thermogram had shown some area of concern that was not confirmed by a mammogram, but she used supplements and essential oils, and when she went back for a re-test, she was fine.
By arrangement with Women's Feature Service