A Mother and her Two Daughters

19 February 2011

Learning More About Breast Cancer Risks & Ongoing Research

My church, Pulaski Heights United Methodist, has a wonderful ministry called Cancer Friends.  It’s a support group led by lay members of the church who have either had cancer or have been through the cancer journey with a loved one.  Members support one another with prayers, telephone calls, notes and cards and other assistance.  Cancer Friends is for church member, and non-members too; in other words, anybody is welcome to join.  Programs include a monthly support group for those battling cancer, and a regularly scheduled luncheon that features an informative guest speaker. 

This past week Dr. Suzanne Klimberg, my breast oncology surgeon at UAMS, was the guest speaker at the Cancer Friends luncheon.  And was she ever informative.  Dr. Klimberg is Director of the Breast Cancer Program at the Winthrop Rockefeller Cancer Institute at UAMS.  She’s the best of both worlds – a brilliant physician committed to healing, and a patient mentor who provides emotional support along the way.  I could not have been more fortunate to be under her care throughout my own battle with cancer. 

I’m going to try to recap a few things she shared with us this past week, as it was very good information for all women to know regarding breast cancer risks, prevention and new treatments.  

About Risk Factors for Breast Cancer:

According to Dr. Klimberg, there are several major risk factors that can increase the chances of getting breast cancer – life-style related risk factors vs. genetic or physical characteristics that cannot be changed.  The top lifestyle risk factors Dr. Klimberg discussed should be top-of-mind for every woman. 
  • Alcohol consumption: The use of alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Compared with non-drinkers, women who consume one alcoholic drink a day have a very small increase in risk. Those who have 2 or more drinks daily almost double their risk of developing breast cancer.  As Dr. Klimberg said, if you drink alcohol, drink in moderation.  
  • Hormone therapy after menopause: Dr. Klimberg clearly believes the research linking hormone replacement therapy with an increased risk for breast cancer.  While HRT used to be the standard, she said that women should consider alternatives to HRT such as new medicines that can help with hot flashes or bone density issues.  It was quite obvious that she is not a fan of hormone replacement therapy.  
  • Being overweight or obese:  Being overweight or obese has been found to increase breast cancer risk, especially for women after menopause. Before menopause your ovaries produce most of your estrogen, and fat tissue produces a small amount of estrogen. After menopause (when the ovaries stop making estrogen), most of a woman's estrogen comes from fat tissue. Having more fat tissue after menopause can increase your chance of getting breast cancer by raising estrogen levels.  In addition to body weight, evidence is growing that physical activity in the form of exercise reduces breast cancer risk.

About ongoing research and improvements in breast cancer care:
  • Preventing Lymphedema:  Klimberg and her UAMS team, with funding provided by the Tenenbaum Breast Cancer Research Foundation, have developed a new surgical method (ARM, or Axillary Reverse Mapping) to prevent lymphedema after breast cancer surgery.  Oftentimes described by women as worse than the mastectomy, it is a swelling that is difficult to treat and caused by faulty drainage of the lymph nodes.  Some studies report the incidence rate of lymphedema in the arm and hand as high as 56%.  The new technique evaluates the ways in which fluid drains through the lymph node system in the arm using an injection of blue dye. The dye is used to map the drainage of the arm.  Mapping the drainage of the arm decreases the chances of unintended disruption of the lymph node system during surgery and reduces the risk of developing swelling in the arm," Klimberg said. UAMS was the first to study lymph node drainage in the arm and it is now using the ARM procedure as standard procedure for breast cancer surgery.  Dr. Klimberg now conducts training seminars on the procedure for breast centers throughout the country. 
  • Spit for the Cure:  The brainchild of Klimberg and Dr. Susan Kadlubar, Ph.D., Spit For The Cure is a breast cancer research study conducted by UAMS and the Fay Boozman College of Public Health that hopes to identify factors that put women at increased risk for breast cancer. They also hope to find out more about why some women respond to treatment and others do not.  In partnership with the Susan G. Komen Arkansas Affiliate, there are now more than 10,000 Arkansas women who are helping to pioneer this research through the simple donation of spit to provide DNA samples.  If you want to contribute to your own saliva samples for this important research, it only takes 10 to 15 minutes of your time.  More information can be found by clicking here. 
  • Tears for Life:  Tears for Life was created in September 2008 as collaboration between researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and MBA students at the University of Arkansas' Walton College of Business.  The partnership has an exclusive license for a patent-pending technology from UAMS to develop an innovative, non-invasive, and convenient screening tool that can detect breast cancer using proteins found in women's tears.  These protein patterns create a multiple marker "barcode" that accurately identifies the presence of breast cancer in the body.  Our vision is that the test will make breast cancer screening easier and more accessible for women, resulting in higher screening rates, earlier diagnosis and treatment, increased survival rates, and reduced treatment costs for patients and insurers.  You can find out more information about this research by clicking here. 

There is amazing progress being made and research going on with breast cancer prevention and treatment, especially at our own UAMS.  The presentation by Dr. Klimberg made me feel much more optimistic about the future. 

For anyone living in Central Arkansas wanting more information about PHUMC’s Cancer Friends program, click here.  This is yet another wonderful cancer support opportunity right here in our community. 

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