Each year, around 290,000 individuals receive a breast cancer diagnosis. The disease also claims the lives about 43,700 people annually.
That’s the sobering news. The good news is that the five-year relative survival rate for localized breast cancer — cancer that has not spread outside the breast — is 99%.
“There’s no question that early detection saves lives and leads to better cancer outcomes,” says Dr. Honnie Bermas, a general surgeon who specializes in breast surgery. “Advances in science mean that most women with breast cancer are treated and cured.”
As we prepare to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, two survivors share their stories in the hopes that they’ll encourage other women to take proactive steps to safeguard their health.
Know Your Body
For Diane Pahl, practicing breast self-awareness helped catch cancer not once but twice. In 2013 and again in 2017, Diane detected a lump in her breast that felt outside the norm for her. Both times, the lumps she felt led to a cancer diagnosis.
“It was random. I felt something kind of funky that I’d never felt before,” Diane says. “It turned out to be cancer.”
After her first diagnosis, Diane underwent a lumpectomy and radiation. She also began taking Tamoxifen, a drug used to treat hormone receptor-positive breast cancer.
About five years later, Diane felt another lump. This time, she was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer. Her treatment included a single mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and targeted drug therapies.
“If you feel something different, see something different, don’t let it go,” Diane says. “Go get it checked out.”
Many experts now say that women should focus on breast self-awareness instead of doing a breast self-exam. The American Cancer Society and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists are among the groups that advocate for breast self-awareness versus self-exams.
Breast self-awareness doesn’t involve following a certain method and schedule. Rather, it’s about knowing what’s normal for your breasts. This can allow you to detect small changes right away and check in with a health care provider when something feels off.
“You need to advocate for yourself,” Diane says. “Know your own body. Know your changes.”
Rebecca Pettit’s breast cancer likely would have gone undetected had she not undergone her annual routine mammogram.
Like many women, Rebecca was busy with the demands of life. For her, these included raising three teenagers and her job as children’s ministries director at an Appleton church.
Rebecca, however, prioritized her health and underwent a routine mammogram in April 2022. Afterward, she received a call that she needed to return for more imaging. That led to a biopsy that showed cancer.
“It was a huge whirlwind,” Rebecca says. “Everything goes through your mind at that moment when you hear the word ‘cancer.’”
Rebecca says she initially felt numb after the diagnosis, but that soon gave way to resolve.
“You put one foot in front of another, and you just … do,” she says. “I just kept going.”
Rebecca’s care team initially thought she had stage 1 breast cancer. She chose to have a lumpectomy in May 2022. However, after the surgery, doctors learned that the cancer was larger than expected. That led to a stage 2 diagnosis.
Rebecca began a regimen of chemotherapy in June and finished in October. In December of 2022, she chose to have a single mastectomy without reconstruction.
The journey wasn’t easy. The reality of the mastectomy hit Rebecca hard at first. And she says she felt like she had lost a whole summer undergoing treatment in 2022.
Today, however, Rebecca is cancer-free and savoring the time she gets to spend with her husband and children.
Now she’s turning her focus to providing hope and support to other women. Part of that is encouraging them to stay on top of routine care, including mammograms and pap tests.
“We tend to minimize what’s going on in our own lives because we’re busy taking care of other people,” Rebecca says. “I want to tell women they are valuable; they are needed; they are loved; they are cared for. You are needed in this world, and you can’t be in this world if you put off your health care and taking care of yourself.”
Dr. Bermas echoes this.
“It’s super important that women are screened with mammograms and other appropriate screenings based on their level of risk,” she says.
This year, Diane and Rebecca were chosen as honorary survivors for the annual Making Strides of the Fox Valley event. The American Cancer Society walk, taking place Oct. 7 at Telulah Park in Appleton, raises funds for breast cancer research and programs.
“Making Strides is a great passion for me,” Diane says. “I’m just one person, but if I can do something in a little way and have something bigger come out of it, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Rebecca agrees. “To be an honorary survivor at the Making Strides walk is an incredible opportunity,” she says. “I believe that I was chosen to give other women hope. I want my voice at that walk to be one of hope and joy.”