As I meet more and more women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, I often hear how their diagnoses shocked them because they "have no family history." If you believe you don't have a family history of breast cancer, I want to explain why you might be wrong about that.
It's currently 2020. I was born in 1959. I'm 61 right now.
My maternal grandmother, Cecelia Mientkiewicz Batorski, was born in Poland in 1881. She came to America on a boat that landed at Ellis Island, New York, in 1906.
My mother, Cecelia Batorski Owen, was born in 1922.
One story from my mom's early years in Chicago is important. They were poor. During the Depression of the late 1920s, my mom fell and accidentally landed on a hard, dirty sucker stick. It was deeply lodged into the bone of her lower leg. With no money for doctors, my Polish grandmother did what she knew to do .... she wrapped Mom's infected leg in cabbage leaves and waited for the infection to expel the stick. It eventually worked.
Fast forward to 1985. This is the year that Breast Cancer Awareness Month began as a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries. Breast cancer survivor and First Lady Betty Ford helped kick off the week-long event. Awareness of breast cancer has consistently stayed in the forefront of public consciousness since that time.
Through the years, we've heard a LOT about breast cancer being connected to "family history." There seems to be a perception that breast cancer is highly hereditary. But contrary to that perception, the breast cancer community reports that 85% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history. Read that again.
I know that statement is probably a surprise to you, right? The unfortunate thing is that it's not quite accurate. I think it's missing one critical word. It should say, 85% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no KNOWN family history.
Given what I shared above, let's think through that for a minute.
At my age, any children or grandchildren I have will be aware that I had breast cancer. And I would know if my mother had breast cancer.
But there's no way to know if either of my grandmothers had breast cancer. In their generation, going to the doctor was rare. If they had pain or discharge in a breast or even a lump, they would have ignored it and pressed on. I doubt that pain or a lump would have even be shared with their husbands. Do you think your grandmothers might have been the same?
Bottom line: The reason I "have no family history" isn't because no one had breast cancer. It's because the health history of my grandparents and others beyond their generation just isn't known.
That's a critical distinction. Please remember it.
Written with love by Jan James, Hope After Breast Cancer
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