Breast Cancer: A True Story
Today, I met a woman who underwent chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer. While with the prevalence of breast cancer my meeting someone with the condition is, unfortunately, not that extraordinary the circumstances of her recovery are. She had the disease for more than six years, during which time her doctors were fully aware her condition, but they wouldn’t treat her until the tumors “had changed.”
I was utterly intrigued by her story, because I’ve never heard another one like it. From the research I conducted, it appears the average time from diagnosis to treatment is 40 days. Why, then, would this woman have been forced to wait six years?
The person of whom I speak was always diligent about her health. She began having mammograms at age 45 because she had a family history of cancer. Her mother had developed breast cancer many years earlier, and her paternal grandmother died from it at a very young age. Moreover, she has one brother and three cousins also diagnosed with cancer (she didn’t specify what types). She was thus wary of the disease long before her own tumor was discovered.
It was during one of these routine mammograms that doctors discovered a lump on her breast. But, as I already mentioned, they chose not to proceed with treatment. She switched doctors thinking that would help, but his opinion matched that of the first: wait and watch.
She finally received treatment only because she switched doctors for a third time and demanded that somebody do something. She was, to say the least, frantic with fear by this point; on December 31, 2011, she found another lump, in addition to the one she already knew of, on her left breast: one on the inside and another underneath. Both were approximately the size of a miniature Tootsie Roll, but she said that, on this day, she discovered the one underneath had changed. So, in her alarm, she was finally able to get doctors to listen. And they agreed the tumor had at last “changed.”
Diagnosis, Waiting, Watching, and Treatment
Oncologists who suggest “waiting and watching” to monitor cancer growth are quick to point out survival statistics, which seem to imply that a six-month delay in actually diagnosing breast cancer and setting a treatment plan won't damage the potential for a 5-year disease-free outcome. The idea is that waiting doesn't put the patient in serious jeopardy, as six months is a relatively brief period of time in the lifespan of a slow-growing tumor. Further, they claim that long-term survival rates for women with fast-growing cancer are low. Therefore, early detection usually won't make a difference - especially for younger women.
Unfortunately, due to obvious ethical concerns, delayed diagnosis and treatment cannot be empirically evaluated through randomized control samples, meaning that the evidence supporting the decision to do delay diagnosis and treatment is lacking and generally inconclusive, at least for now. The most in-depth research pertaining to this topic was released in 1999. The study concluded that delays will negatively influence the survival rate of roughly 5 to 10% of women at the five year survival marker.
My 2 Cents
Personally, I do not know what her doctors were thinking in having her wait six years for treatment. She is now 64 years old, and the chemotherapy has given her neuropathy on one side of her body. Doctors say this may or may not go away, only time will tell. Once more, therefore, they’ve told her to wait and see. But one thing is clear: the cancer has left her body, and she often spends most days feeling strong and healthy. She continues to work five days a week as a secretary and is still as spry as ever. She just wishes her treatment had started years ago so her body would be fully recovered by now.