October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to encourage women to perform self-exams and stay aware of their health. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women, affecting one in eight during their lifetimes, according to Breastcancer.org.

As many as 85% of women who are diagnosed have no cases in their families, making it important for women to stay on top of their health. When caught early, breast cancer has an excellent survival rate. Advances in detection and treatment are saving lives, resulting in a survival rate around 90%, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Practice awareness of awareness initiatives

Awareness efforts have at times become controversial, with critics noting that so-called “pink-washing,” results in huge profits for companies that often manufacture products linked to breast cancer.

Be a savvy pink supporter by looking to see what percentage of the purchase—if any—a company has pledged to donate to breast cancer programs, recommends Breast Cancer Action (BCA).

Also consider the type of product marked with the pink ribbon. Many chemicals used to scent products from air fresheners to perfume, for example, have been linked to breast cancer cell growth in laboratory studies, reports Forbes, but nevertheless come adorned with breast cancer awareness imagery.

In 2011, the Susan G. Komen foundation released a perfume called Promise Me that BCA tested to find a chemical that disrupts hormones and that some studies show contributes to breast cancer, reports AOL’s Daily Finance. The Komen foundation agreed to stop selling that specific formulation, although bottles already on the market weren’t recalled.

Different types of breast cancer

Many chemicals linked to breast cancer are believed to contribute to the disease by mimicking estrogen. Estrogen-driven breast cancer is one of the more common types of tumor cells that develop, but other kinds also exist.

When a woman is first diagnosed, her doctor will have the cells analyzed to find out which specific type of cancer it is to design the most effective treatment protocol.

Some types of breast cancer have receptors for the hormones estrogen and progesterone. These cancers are referred to as ER or PR positive, according to Mayo Clinic. This means that these hormones drive the cells’ growth. That’s why it’s controversial for some women to eat soy — because it contains estrogen-like properties.

Other times, breast cancer cells may not have hormone receptors. These types of cells are referred to as hormone receptor negative, or HR. This can actually make the cancer more difficult to treat since many of the medicines available target hormone receptors.

Another type of cancer is referred to as HER2, which is shorthand for human epidermal growth factor receptor. This protein promotes growth and cancerous cells have too many copies of the related gene.

Yet another type of cancer is called triple negative and has neither hormone receptors nor HER2.

What if I’ve recently been diagnosed?

Figuring out your next steps after a new diagnosis can be frightening. You may feel angry, confused, disoriented, and overwhelmed. All of this is normal.

The most important thing is to have a doctor who you feel responds to your needs and is capable of treating you successfully. Don’t be afraid to seek out second opinions until you find a doctor you’re comfortable with. While time is of the essence, it’s also important to get the right treatment.

Ask for recommendations from friends, network with online groups, or ask your primary care physician to refer to you a highly qualified oncologist. Once you have cancer, you can usually schedule appointments relatively quickly. Doctors want to make sure you get in for treatment.

This is a stressful time, and that makes it even more important to continue eating healthy foods and doing as much exercise as possible. Your body needs all the resources it needs to heal, and your No. 1 job as a patient is to get better. Nothing else matters.

Educating yourself about your condition is critical, says WebMD. However, the Internet can be your best friend or worst nightmare. The web can connect you with information and message boards full of like-minded women sharing their stories, but it can also create massive fear as you read worst-case scenarios, horror stories, or flat-out wrong (or outdated) information.

During your journey as a patient, you’ll need to find a balance between staying educated and staying sane by restricting your diet of information.

How do I help someone how has been recently diagnosed?

Your friend or loved one is going through a tough time, and any help or words of encouragement will be greatly appreciated.

Everyone is so different, with different types of cancer and prognosis, that it’s generally not helpful to share stories of other people you know who went through the same disease, even if it seems similar, unless your friend or loved one specifically asks.

The best thing you can do for the person is to listen, recommends Health magazine. Be open and non-judgmental. You don’t even need to offer advice, just a friendly ear. Encouraging words like “stay positive” are generally not advised. Many cancer patients want the freedom to feel their feelings as they undergo emotionally and physically arduous treatments.

Another wonderful thing you can do is offer rides to doctors’ offices or help with taking notes during appointments. If the patient is someone how you know well, and he or she is undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, tell the person, “Let me go grocery shopping for you. What do you want?” or simply arrive with food.

If you don’t know the person well, it may be best to send a card or make some other small gesture. Use your best judgment.

If you do know the person well, sometimes it’s nice just to do things without asking. Patients need help with so much, and they get tired of asking for help. Many people feel bad about constantly needing assistance. Anything you do, even if it’s not perfect, will be greatly appreciated.

Ultimately, the best thing to do is to act from your heart. Nothing is truly wrong if it comes from a place of compassion. Even if you accidentally say something inappropriate or that hurts the patient’s feelings, just say something like, “I am so sorry. I’m not sure how to respond to this situation, and I’m just trying to help.”

Just be honest and act with good intentions. You can make such a big difference in the life of your friend or loved one just by being present and showing that you care.

Do you have any personal experiences with breast cancer?

Image by williami5 via Flickr

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