October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I am dedicating this blog post to all the women who have fought and survived breast cancer and to the memory of those who did not, including my dear friend Julie Gandle who left this world in January 2007.

Breast health should be observed every day of the year, not just focused on in the month of October. Here are some important stats to chew own. It starts with the odds. And if you survive and beat it, you got even.

  • About 1 in 8 women in the United States (12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.
  • In 2010, an estimated 207,090 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 54,010 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer.
  • About 1,970 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in men in 2010. Less than 1% of all new breast cancer cases occur in men.
  • From 1999 to 2006, breast cancer incidence rates in the U.S. decreased by about 2% per year. One theory is that this decrease was partially due to the reduced use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) by women after the results of a large study called the Women’s Health Initiative were published in 2002. These results suggested a connection between HRT and increased breast cancer risk.
  • About 39,840 women in the U.S. were expected to die in 2010 from breast cancer, though death rates have been decreasing since 1990. These decreases are thought to be the result of treatment advances, earlier detection through screening, and increased awareness.
  • For women in the U.S., breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer, besides lung cancer.
  • Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among U.S. women. More than 1 in 4 cancers in women (about 28%) are breast cancer.
  • Compared to African American women, white women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer, but less likely to die of it. One possible reason is that African American women tend to have more aggressive tumors, although why this is the case is not known. Women of other ethnic backgrounds — Asian, Hispanic, and Native American — have a lower risk of developing and dying from breast cancer than white women and African American women.
  • In 2010, there were more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.
  • A woman’s risk of breast cancer approximately doubles if she has a first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. About 20-30% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of breast cancer.
  • About 5-10% of breast cancers can be linked to gene mutations (abnormal changes) inherited from one’s mother or father. Mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are the most common. Women with these mutations have up to an 80% risk of developing breast cancer during their lifetime, and they are more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age (before menopause). An increased ovarian cancer risk is also associated with these genetic mutations. In men, about 1 in 10 breast cancers are believed to be due to BRCA2 mutations and even fewer cases to BRCA1 mutations.
  • About 70-80% of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history of breast cancer. These occur due to genetic abnormalities that happen as a result of the aging process and life in general, rather than inherited mutations.
  • The most significant risk factors for breast cancer are gender (being a woman) and age (growing older).

I had no immediate family with breast cancer. My diagnosis was the result of several factors, the most notable being that I carry the BRAAC2 gene. I found this out after being being tested after my diagnosis.  Other factors I have read: I was 50 when I was diagnosed and in perimenopause. I did not have children,  took the birth control pill for three decades. I endured a high level of stress in a short period of time combined with a spur of weight gain.  Personally, I think  stress was the tipping point. There were no abnormal signs in my mammogram. I found the lump during a self-exam. There were three actually, but only one could be felt. Be vigilant about examing your breasts. 

You come out of a cancer battle worn and wiser. How you use the experience and shape your life afterwards is up to you. I am using it to focus on empowering women and broaden my creative assets. I have decided no longer to keep my cancer “secret” as I did for more than a year out of fear I would lose business.  I decided to “get things off my chest” and be more fearless and more frank.

In the coming months I intend to interview women who fought the same battle and asked them how it changed them…or how it did not. What alterations, if any, did they they make in their lifestyles and their livelihoods? What wit and wisdom can they share with other women warriors?

Hear is my personal manifesto:

1. You cannot look at breast cancer as a death sentence. You have to look at it as a life sentence: You will fight to win the battle and you will live your life with more purpose, more passion and more perseverence.

2. You will deal with loss, be it your breasts, your hair, your eyelashes, your energy, your free time. You will gain more clarity about what really matters and refocus your energy to take care of your self and the people around you. 

3. In most cases breasts can be reconstructed; hair and eyelashes will grow back. You will still be beautiful from the inside out. Make the situation work in your favor: get a great wig; take a free makeup class; wear pretty colors; keep hydrated, keep moving your body, sleep and be a selfish with your time and energy. You can make it through and you can make a difference.  I went through treatment with the vision of a tiara on my head and not a halo.

4.  Certain things may no longer appeal to you after cancer.  The site of  a certain color of red liquid, be it Campari, Cosmopolitans or bloody red meat turns my stomach and reminds me of A/C treatment, aka “The Red Devil.”  I used to love the scent of my husband’s cologne and now I do not.  Dairy products don’t sit well in my stomach. I have no tolerance for bull shit.

5. Time becomes more precious: saving it; spending it more wisely; sharing it with the people who matter and not wasting it on issues and people who do not matter.

6.  What you put in your body and on your body become more important. You try to avoid toxic food, toxic materials, toxic throughts  toxic people.

7. Do not let cancer define you. You are not a victim; you are a fighter, a survivor. You can use the experience to define and decide how you want to live.

8.  I notice that when I tell people I had breast cancer they respond by looking at my chest. It happens all the time!  Remember, if someone tells you they have cancer, look into their eyes when you respond.

9. It’s OK to feel like you are living a bad dream. I still feel that way about my life in 2009-2010. But I have photos, medical records and bills, follow up appointments and a pair of silicone ta tas that remind me that it was real. Recovery is more than finishing treatment. It is about emotional recovery, and that can take longer than you may think. If you woke from your bad dream feeling pretty badass and unbalanced, seek help; ask questions.  “Normal” is relative and many survivors say they live a “new normal.”

10. The word “survive” means to outlive, to endure. Cancer is a test of physical and emotional endurance and also about beating the odds. It is a marathon none of us train for but with great coaching from doctors, counselors, friends and families and your own personal inner strength, you can cross the finish line. What you do when you cross that line is up to you.