The Surprising Upside of Breast Cancer
When Leslie Haywoods doctor gave her a breast cancer diagnosis, she knew immediately that she wanted a double mastectomy. “Because of my mothers struggle with breast cancer when I was 16, I always felt I had two B-size time bombs sitting on my chest, just waiting to explode,” says the 37-year-old, of Charleston, South Carolina. “I wanted to be done with the worry forever!” Haywood found out that, despite the devastating diagnosis, some survivors come out of it feeling better than ever.
Theres no denying the painful, debilitating toll of breast cancer, a disease that claims roughly 40,000 lives a year. “Its like a terrorist attack from within. You feel out of control,” says Julia A. Smith, MD, PhD, director of the New York University (NYU) Cancer Institute Breast Cancer Screening and Prevention Program and the Lynne Cohen Breast Cancer Preventive Care Program.
Then there are the harsh, even devastating, side effects that chemotherapy and other treatments can bring. “Most breast cancer treatments have serious potential consequences and have to be thought through carefully after discussion with your doctor,” Dr. Smith says.
But heres what you may not know: For some survivors like Haywood, whove found immense relief in her diagnosis, there can be a surprising silver lining to the struggle. Though no one would wish for a BC diagnosis, and treatment and recovery is often arduous, some women are surprised and pleased to end up with clearer skin, relief from achy joints—and in the best shape of their lives.[ pagebreak ]More TLC for yourself.
Survivors often experience a stronger connection to their bodies. “Now, I respect my body. Its done a good job in helping heal itself. When it hints it needs a break, I slow down and rest,” says 34-year-old Stefanie LaRue, patient advocate and spokeswoman for the Breast Preservation Foundation, an organization that helps inform breast cancer patients of their surgical options. LaRue had a skin-sparing mastectomy, which removed the tumor and her breast tissue through a small semicircular incision near the nipple. The surgery left minimal scarring and allowed a breast reconstruction to restore her shape.
Like LaRue, many breast cancer survivors take better care of themselves by tuning into their bodies, eating healthier, and exercising more, which may safeguard them against future illness. Some even find their calling in cancer.
Kelly Henderson, 46, of Fort Myers, Florida, kept her spirits high by creatingvibrant head wraps and clothing ensembles to wear during her treatments. The compliments she received helped her stay positive—and inspired her to start her own business, www.iwearitwell.com, where she sells cheerful and fashionable clothes, head wraps, and jewelry that encourage other women as they wrestle with breast cancer.
Physical fitness like never before.
Before her brush with cancer, Leslie Haywood exercised occasionally. Now, she runs two or three miles a day, every day—a regimen fueled by the knowledge that this is one of the best things she can do to keep cancer at bay.
“Exercise appears to reduce the risk of recurrence of some breast cancers, as well as the risk of dying from the three most common killers of women: heart disease, cancer, and stroke,” says Julie Silver, MD, assistant professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. Research has shown that women with estrogen-sensitive breast cancer (the most common form) who walked just three to five hours a week at a moderate pace experienced a 50 percent lower risk of dying from breast cancer, compared with physically inactive women with the disease.
Kelly Henderson has also stayed fit, lifting weights twice a week and running more days than not. “Now, I see a workout as preparation for lifes challenges,” she says. “In case my cancer ever comes back, I want to be armed and ready. Today, Im stronger, bolder and hopefully wiser—a proud member of the ‘survivors club who fought this battle and won.”[ pagebreak ]Fewer heart attacks, stronger bones.
Breast cancer survivors may be less likely to develop coronary heart disease for two reasons, says Elizabeth Lamont, MD, an assistant professor at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and Harvard Medical School.
First, the high estrogen levels that contribute to some forms of breast cancer may actually protect against heart disease—the number-one killer of women. Estrogen lowers cholesterol levels and increases blood flow to the heart by encouraging blood vessels to dilate, which may lead to a healthier heart.
Second, tamoxifen—one of the most commonly prescribed breast cancer drugs (its also used preventively by some high-risk women)—may have heart-protective effects for breast cancer patients and survivors, according to some research. While the drug blocks the effect of estrogen in breast tissue or tumors, it can help estrogen do beneficial work in other parts of the body, such as the heart and bones.
Estrogen can slow or prevent the bone loss that comes with aging. And Dr. Lamonts research has shown that elderly breast cancer survivors were less likely to suffer from hip fractures than similar women who had not had breast cancer. Some portion of this estrogen-derived bone benefit may be attributable to tamoxifen, Dr. Lamont says. Of course, the drug also carries significant risks. And, for many women, it is not without side effects: hot flashes, fatigue, and sexual problems among them.
Relief from arthritis and acne. Some women experience these surprising positive side effects of chemotherapy, according to anecdotal reports from their doctors. Take 42-year-old Allison Stanley, of Charlotte, North Carolina, who found that her skin became flawless during and after chemo. Stanleys oncologist, Thomas Hauch, MD, of Carolinas Cancer Care in Charlotte, says that some inflammatory skin conditions, including psoriasis and cystic acne, may improve with chemotherapy. Certain drugs used in chemo regimes, like prednisone, are anti-inflammatory, which may play a role in affecting certain types of acne or other skin conditions, says Doris Day, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the NYU Langone Medical Center. “Even normal skin may regenerate more quickly during chemotherapy, causing a younger, smoother appearance.”
Though many chemo treatments typically cause body aches, chemo may actually ease them for some women, says William Dunn, MD, a radiation oncologist at the West Michigan Cancer Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Thats because some skin and joint diseases, such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis, are caused by the immune system attacking the bodys own tissues. Chemo slows the immune system, in effect robbing those diseases of their power supply. Some experts suspect that chemo may also lessen the inflammation associated with osteoarthritis, which is typically considered a disease of aging but may prove to be linked to immune system problems, too. However, symptoms may return when chemo ends, Dr. Dunn says.[ pagebreak ]New curves. For Haywood, breast cancer diagnosis and treatment brought more than stress relief and better exercise habits—she came through looking and feeling younger. Haywood chose a type of breast reconstruction that uses the patients own tissue (excess skin and fat from the abdomen, bottom, or inner thigh) rather than implants to create natural-looking breasts. Any woman who has a mastectomy can discuss this form of breast reconstruction with her doctors, though some women, particularly those who smoke or are obese, may not be suitable candidates.
“This procedure is superior to other [breast-reconstruction] techniques because the resultant breasts are warm, soft, and responsive to changes in weight and body growth, just like natural breasts,” says Richard M. Kline Jr., MD, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon with The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction in Charleston, South Carolina. The new breasts may be less sensitive to touch, though.
Haywood was delighted—no more breast cancer worries, no more tummy pooch, and two perky new boobs. “How in the world could I complain?” she says.
Better preventive care. When breast cancer survivors get the follow-
up care they need, they also have increased access to preventive services such as flu vaccinations, cervical and colon screening, and lipid panels, according to a study from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
This has proved true for Gitta Wombwell, Leslie Haywoods mom, who was diagnosed at age 39, had a mastectomy and chemo, and has been disease-free ever since. “I still see my oncologist every six to nine months for tumor markers (blood, urine, and tissue tests for substances that indicate potential cancer), lipid profiles, and flu shots,” she says. “After 20 years, my doctor is very good about making sure there is no sign of cancer—and that I stay healthy.”