October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, a month when pink sheds its image of soft and pretty and becomes focused and determined. Let’s not let the month go by without doing our part to spread the message that the fight’s not over.
“I was out shopping for new bras, and I noticed my left breast was swollen and red,” remembers Mary Misiti. “Over the next four to five weeks it went from being red and warm to dimply, like an orange.” (She later learned this condition is called “peau d’orange,” a French term meaning “orange peel skin.”) Misiti says she called the gynecologist and was urged to come right over. After the examination, the gynecologist told Misiti she was sending her to the surgeon immediately. “I told her I can’t go see a surgeon. I need to get to work!” says Misiti, a nail tech for over 17 years. Faced with the doctor’s obvious concern, Misiti cancelled her clients and allowed the doctor to schedule an ultrasound and biopsy for that day. “I knew it was a problem,” says Misiti. “It was Friday afternoon, and I was bumped to the top of the list to see three doctors in one day.”
On Saturday, Misiti was scheduled to participate in a breast cancer walk. “I remember walking in support of other people, and here I am waiting to get my own test results,” she recalls. “Somehow, I knew I had cancer, but I wasn’t scared.”
Her premonition was confirmed on Monday. Six days before her 48th birthday, Misiti was told she had inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and very aggressive form of cancer. She was also told the cancer was triple negative, which means it was not being fed through estrogen or progesterone, making it more difficult to treat. Though she had a mammogram only a few months before, Misiti was told her cancer was already at a Stage IIIB. “The truth is,” says Misiti, “inflammatory breast cancer is so aggressive, there are no early stages. It’s always diagnosed at Stage III or IV. Mine was IIIB because it had spread to the lymph nodes.” The doctor encouraged Misiti to quit when she suggested she wanted to continue working during her chemo treatments, knowing the treatment would be difficult. “I tried to keep working, though, because I didn’t want to give up all those December tips!” Misiti laughs. Eventually, she took the doctor’s advice and left the salon.
Almost a year after her treatment has ended, Misiti’s doctor has declared her to be in remission. Concerned her profession may have played a role in her diagnosis, Misiti consulted the doctor about the dangers of “breathing in fumes and nail dust for 15 years.” The doctor rejected the theory; the exposure is not linked to breast cancer.
“I did all the right things,” says Misiti. “I scheduled my annual checkup, and I had a mammogram every year.” Still, it was changes she noticed in her body that propelled her to seek medical help and catch the cancer early. “At first I noticed my left breast felt heavier, but I thought it was due to a heavy period,” Misiti explains. “But then I noticed it was red like a sunburn, warm, and dimply.” Misiti advises techs to pay attentions to any change in texture or color, “I tell people they need to take charge of their body. We need to be our own advocates.”
Mary Misiti (seated) poses with her family on her 48th birthday, six days after she received the news about her inflammatory breast cancer.
“Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, affecting one in eight women,” says Charles Perkins III MD., Ph.D., a radiation oncologist from 21st Century Oncology in Southwest Florida. For two decades the rates of breast cancer increased. Though, in truth, higher rates may have been the result of earlier and better detection from mammograms, explains Dr. Perkins. Cancer rates decreased, at a rate of nearly 2% a year, from 1995 to 2005, certainly good news for women everywhere. “The decrease more recently is thought to be due to the decline in use of hormone replacement therapy after menopause. A report published in 2002 from the Women’s Health Initiative linked the use of hormone therapy with an increased risk of breast cancer and heart disease,” says Dr. Perkins.
As the medical field continues to identify what increases the risk of breast cancer, and makes advancements in treatment options, women are encouraged to schedule regular exams and screenings. Both the American Cancer Society and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommend women under 40 get an in-office exam from a doctor every 1-3 years. Women 40 and over should have a yearly exam, plus a yearly mammogram screening.
In his book Anticancer: A New Way of Life, Dr. Servan-Schreiber talks about the connection between lifestyle, attitude, and cancer. In his book, Servan-Schreiber notes a study by Barbara Anderson, professor of psychology at Ohio State University, which observed 227 women with breast cancer. Those who were taught and practiced better nutrition, physical exercise, and relaxation techniques had a 56% lower mortality rate over an 11-year period. The data showed the changes they put into practice allowed women to reduce the feeling of helplessness in their lives. The more they reduced that feeling, the more the immune system was strengthened.
Misiti has seen first-hand the benefit of refusing to feel helpless. “I had three friends who had gone through it and remained positive,” she says. When it was her turn, she determined that even in her fight she would embrace people, love them, and continue to be a “feisty Italian.” Despite being told she must wait at least two years to have reconstructive surgery (because of her type of cancer), Misiti is not defeated. “I have a great husband and beautiful children,” says Misiti. “Life is good.”
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