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Answering the Most Commonly Asked Questions About Breast Cancer

Two medical advisors from the Dr. Susan Love Foundation for Breast Cancer Research offer advice for breast cancer patients and the doctors who treat them.

Lauren Green M.D.

Co-Chair, Center for Breast Care Head of Breast Imaging, University of Illinois Hospital, Associate Residency Program Director, Department of Radiology at the University of Illinois Hospital and Medical Advisor, Dr. Susan Love Foundation for Breast Cancer Research

Stephanie Graff, M.D., FACP

Director of Breast Oncology,
Lifespan Cancer Institute, Assistant
Professor of Medicine at Brown University and Medical Advisor, Dr. Susan Love Foundation for Breast Cancer Research

Why is the doctor/patient relationship so important for breast cancer patients? Where do you think doctors can improve in making this relationship stronger?

Stephanie Graff: A cancer diagnosis is a very intense time regardless of stage or what type of treatment is required. Having a physician you trust, whom you can engage in dialogue with, whom you can be vulnerable with, is really important. I think doctors can slow down and listen. In the era of electronic medical records and managed care, physicians are sometimes so busy with clicks and the next patient that they forget to be present, which makes all the difference.

What are the top symptoms of breast cancer and how can people make sure they are getting early detection?

Lauren Green: Some common breast cancer symptoms can include a lump in the breast or underarm, swelling or shrinking of one breast, nipple retraction, and non-breast milk spontaneous nipple discharge. Many cancers, however, can be detected by breast screenings exams, like mammograms, before they are large enough to cause any symptoms. This is why screening mammograms — and, in some circumstances, supplemental screening tests — are so important. Patients tend to have the best outcomes when cancers are found during early stages.

In 2021, what are some of the best treatment options? How can doctors form personalized treatment plans for their patients?

SG: In 2021, all breast cancer care is personalized based on the type of breast cancer, stage of disease, and prognostic markers (estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor, and/or HER2). When those facts are combined, breast cancer isn’t one disease, it is dozens of diseases with several different care plans depending on how the features fit together.

What would you recommend to patients having a hard time with their self-esteem and mental health?

LG: Just as it takes hard work to maintain physical health, maintaining good self-esteem and mental health also requires effort, and this is particularly true for patients working their way through cancer treatments and their potential long-term effects. A good starting point for improving mental health is making sure physical health is optimized. A healthy diet, regular physical activity, and stress reduction are key. A strong support system, which may include family, friends, and support groups, is incredibly important. Finally, professional help is sometimes necessary. Therapy and, in some cases, medication are necessary to help patients navigate through challenging times.

Breast cancer can cause financial burdens on patients. What systems are in place to help them?

SG: Many cancer centers have oncology social workers or financial counselors who are simply heroes! The pharmaceutical industry offers patient assistance grants, GoodRX is often quite helpful, and several nonprofits have resources as well.

LG: These options vary city to city, so a great first resource would be for patients to speak directly with their healthcare providers and institutions for more information.

What should people be talking more about for Breast Cancer Awareness month this year?

SG: It is time to move from awareness to action. Donate to clinical research. Participate in a clinical trial. Demand legislative action for research funding or affordable, equitable care. Load your friends in your car and have your mammograms together. 

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