Cathy, now Chair of the Canadian Breast Cancer Network, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. Breast cancer is a malignant tumour that begins in the cells of the breast and can spread to other parts of the body.
The most common sign of breast cancer is a lump in the breast. This lump does not get smaller or go away, and may feel irregular and tender. A lump can also form in the armpit. Other symptoms could include change in breast size, changes in the skin around the breast and changes in the nipple.
The cancer can begin in different parts of the breast – in the ducts, the lobules or in between tissue. It can be non-invasive, invasive, metastatic or recurrent. Non-invasive breast cancer remains within the tissue of the breast lobules or ducts, while invasive breast cancer has spread to surrounding tissue outside the breast lobules or ducts. Metastatic breast cancer has spread further into other parts of the body such as the bones, lungs, liver, brain and skin. Recurrent breast cancer has come back after treatment either in the breast or chest wall, or any other part of the body.
There are five main molecular subtypes of breast cancer. Luminal A breast cancer is low-grade and normally grows slowly. Normal-like breast cancer is similar to Luminal A, but is associated with a slightly worse prognosis. Luminal B breast cancer, on the other hand, grows a bit faster than Luminal A and is also typically associated with a worse prognosis. Triple-negative breast cancer is more common in patients who have tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation while patients with the HER2 gene amplification have HER2-enriched breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in Canada and is the second leading cause of death in Canadian women. It is estimated that breast cancer represents 26 per cent of all new cancer cases in women in 2016.
Despite the high prevalence of breast cancer among Canadian women, Cathy was still surprised by her diagnosis. Luckily, she was very quickly put on a treatment plan. As a young breast cancer patient, Cathy felt scared but was happy to have the support of her loved ones. After treatment, Cathy decided she could make a difference by helping other patients – some of whom may not have the support she did – to deal with the fear, anxiety and confusion brought on by a breast cancer diagnosis. Today Cathy educates and empowers breast cancer patients across Canada through her work as Chair of the Canadian Breast Cancer Network.
“My journey with breast cancer took place 17 years ago, so it’s safe to say the landscape has changed quite a bit. Back then our issue was breast cancer education and breast cancer awareness. When you’re young and you’ve just been told you have breast cancer – you fear the unknown and that fear is palpable. At that time, we didn’t talk about cancer. It was taboo. We used to be given a book and it was supposed to give us an idea of what the journey ahead of us would look like. Back then, you read about it.
Now things are different. Now someone sits with you and talks to you about your breast cancer treatment options. Now you can go to a coffee shop and meet with other patients and ask them, ‘What’s your experience like?’ Education and awareness have taken shape. Now our problem is access.
When I was going through cancer treatment, I had two choices: radiation or chemotherapy. I chose chemo and my treatment route was decided. Today those choices are very different.
I work with patients everyday and I know that in our healthcare system, the care is great when you get the care. But it’s so hard, especially if you’re in a rural area, to get access to an oncologist. Then when you do get to see one, you might end up with one that doesn’t give you the information to navigate the system. Then if you figure out how to navigate the system, the cancer centre you need to get to might be far away. How do you get there? Is there a driver that can take you to and from the centre? Is there somewhere you can stay when you’re having your treatment?
In bigger cities, yes we have access. We have access to big hospitals with multidisciplinary teams that will give you treatment information, psychological information and wellness information. But there needs to be a balance when it comes to access to this information and to treatment options, and that balance in access needs to be across the country.”