Treating Breast Cancer After Menopause
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Most women go through menopause in their 40’s or 50’s. It officially starts 12 months after your last menstrual period and signals the end of your ability to get pregnant. As a result of your body’s decreased production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone during this time, you may experience a variety of symptoms, such as hot flashes and a slowed metabolism.
Women of menopausal age are at an increased risk for breast cancer. Though menopause itself does not cause breast cancer, the chance of developing breast cancer increases the older you get. It also appears the longer your breast tissue is exposed to estrogen, the greater your breast cancer risk. For this reason, women who go through menopause later than the age of 55 and those who take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to ease menopause symptoms may be at an increased risk of breast cancer.
MaryAnne’s mother passed away from metastatic breast cancer, and MaryAnne is now treating the same disease. She says her hope lives in her advocacy work, fighting so her daughter won’t be part of the same cycle.
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I’m MaryAnne, and have spent the last four years really dedicated to advocacy work for metastatic breast cancer. When I was first diagnosed with the recurrence … I … I’m usually not a person who’s very self-critical. I’m very accepting of who I am and what I am, but I found myself blaming myself. I felt I ate right, I did the most aggressive treatments and surgeries that they had, did everything right. So, how did this happen to me? When people say to me, “Well, if you drink baking soda and eat asparagus three times a day out of a can, it cured my friend, and it could cure you.” And then people will say, “Oh, it’s in your lungs now? Were you a smoker?” People say things that reinforce that, that somehow this is my fault. And that is something that really takes time to get through to understand no one did anything wrong. It just happened. People call me a warrior, and I’m fighting the good fight in my battle. I tell them, “Please don’t say that to me, because that means when I die, cancer won, and I won’t let cancer win.” If that means I’ve made a difference in funding and research? Then cancer doesn’t win. I find my hope in advocacy work, just making as much noise as I can to bring awareness to the lack of funding to research dollars for metastatic disease. That’s where I find my hope, because my hope is that this never happens to my daughter. That’s what keeps me going on those days where I feel I can’t get off the couch, and I can’t make dinner, and how am I going to get in the shower and finish a shower because I’m out of breath? I remember that I have work to do.
If you are diagnosed with breast cancer after menopause, this can also affect your doctor’s treatment decisions. Some types of treatment are appropriate for women both before and after menopause. Others, however, are only used to treat postmenopausal women, because women who are still menstruating produce too much estrogen in their ovaries for certain treatments to be effective.
After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, you’ll undergo several tests to learn more about your specific type of cancer. In addition to your menopausal status, these are some factors your doctor will consider:
Stage of breast cancer: Your cancer will be given a stage from I to IV. This is based on the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other organs.
Hormone receptor status: Your cancer cells are studied to determine if they have special proteins, called hormone receptors, which indicate if the cells need estrogen or progesterone, the female reproductive hormones, to grow. Your cancer may be referred to as ER-positive if it has receptors that attach to estrogen and PR-positive if it has receptors that attach to progesterone.
Human epidermal growth factor type 2 receptor (HER2) status: Your cells will be checked for the HER2 protein. This protein is involved in cell growth and is found on some breast cancer cells.
How aggressive the cancer appears: Your doctor will look at how rapidly the cancer is growing and if it appears likely to spread.
Whether the cancer is new or recurring: Newly diagnosed cancer may be treated differently than cancer that has returned after remission.
Standard Forms of Treatment
You will likely receive multiple forms of treatment for your breast cancer. These are the most commonly used for all women, regardless of if they are pre- or post-menopausal.
Surgery: Most breast cancer patients will have some type of surgery to try to remove the cancer. This may involve removing the tumor itself and any affected lymph nodes, or it may require a mastectomy—removal of one or both breasts.
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses powerful medication to destroy cancer cells, but it can also destroy normal cells in the process. It can be injected directly into your veins or given as a pill that you take by mouth. It may be given prior to surgery to help shrink the tumor or afterwards in an attempt to kill the remaining cancer cells.
Radiation: This is often recommended for women after they undergo a lumpectomy to remove the tumor. High-energy x-rays are directed at the tissue to destroy cancer cells and keep them from returning.
If you have hormone receptor-positive (HR-positive or HR+) breast cancer, you may also receive hormone therapy. The goal is to decrease the amount of estrogen or block it from attaching to the hormone receptors, so the cancer cells cannot grow. Hormone therapy may also prevent cancer from returning. Specific types of hormone therapy are approved for women after menopause.
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