Breast cancer doesn’t even observe gender differences. Although women are more than 100 times more likely than men to be diagnosed with breast cancer, more than 2,000 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with the disease by the end of this year. An estimated U.S. 440 men will die from breast cancer by the end of 2015.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 231,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, and more than 40,000 will die from the disease.
Kathryn Baskerville, of North Chesterfield, never thought she would get a breast cancer diagnosis. Healthy all of her life, Baskerville followed a health regimen that included annual checkups, regular breast self-exams, and annual mammograms to look for breast lumps before they can be felt. There was never a problem.
She was so confident that she almost skipped her regular mammogram in 2012, but she gave in to the urgings of her husband, Ralth. “I was going to skip it for a year,” Baskerville recalls. “It had always been negative, and I figured, 'Why bother?' But Ralth told me that either I would make the appointment or he would. So I went ahead.”
Just before Thanksgiving in 2012, she learned that health care professionals had found stage 3 cancer in her left breast. Cancer starts when something goes wrong in the tiny and violent world of the body’s cellular system. Cells begin to grow out of control, pushing aside or killing normal cells. Like evil armies, they form into groups of similar cells — tumors — that invade surrounding tissue or spread to distant areas of the body.
Baskerville, age 61 at the time, was relatively lucky. Her tumor was about 2 inches across, in an area that could not have been felt by self-exam. The cancer had not spread, or metastasized, to other areas within her body.
“I was in a daze at first,” Baskerville says. “I could not believe it was happening to me. I kept wondering, 'Where did this come from?' I’ve always been healthy, never any health problems.
“I got on the Internet, and I did research on cancer statistics. Then I realized, 'Why not me?'”
The risk of breast cancer is higher among women whose close blood relatives have had cancer. Although Baskerville's father, uncle and aunt had cancer, none had had breast cancer.
She learned that her treatment would start with chemotherapy, followed by radiation therapy,
Baskerville and her husband were ready. “The main thing that Ralth said is, ‘You and I are gonna take care of this. We’re in it together,’” Baskerville says, tearing up as she remembers how much of an inspiration and help her husband proved to be. “We got over the initial shock and surprise,” she says, “and we moved on to what we needed to do to take care of this. I had too much living yet to do!”
Ralth Baskerville retired early so he would be available to help during his wife's treatment, which took place at the Secours Cancer Institute at St. Francis Medical Center in Richmond. She started chemotherapy treatments in early 2013. In chemotherapy, cancer-killing drugs are injected into a vein or given by mouth. The drugs travel through the bloodstream to target cancer cells in most parts of the body. Chemo is given in cycles, with each period of treatment followed by a recovery period.
Baskerville was scheduled for a total of eight treatments, with two weeks between each. “I researched chemo on the Internet,” she says, “and the only thing that scared me was the side effects.”
Drugs used in chemotherapy have to be powerful to kill rapidly growing cancer cells, but in the course of their work, the drugs can harm perfectly healthy cells, causing side effects throughout the body. Some people manage to go though chemotherapy with hardly a trace of difficulty. Others, including Baskerville, are not so lucky.
“My first treatment was really hard,” she says. “It took me maybe a week to recover from it. As time went on, I was so weak that I stopped going to church and to choir practice,” but she endured and had a break of about six weeks before starting radiation therapy.
With radiation therapy, high-energy rays are precisely targeted on tumor areas to destroy cancer cells. Her radiation therapy took place between July and early September 2013.
When Baskerville's hair started falling out — a common side effect of the treatment — her husband suggested that she have all of her hair cut off to save her the torment of watching it
fall out a little each day. She took him up on his suggestion, and Ralth Baskerville had his head shaved in support.
During the treatment, the Baskervilles had to cancel a long-planned 40th anniversary trip to Niagara Falls. Instead, they celebrated their anniversary at home, watching a video of iconic Niagara Falls scenes.
As her radiation therapy ended, Baskerville had trouble using her hands. The joints in her hands were achy, preventing her from doing many activities, including working in her garden.
Her oncologist at Bon Secours, Ryan S. Raddin, MD, knew of a clinical trial involving the drug Cymbalta, which is prescribed for a variety of ailments but was being studied at the time for its effectiveness with joint pain.
Clinical trials are conducted to determine what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to new medical approaches or products. Each trial is aimed at answering two questions — does the product work and is it safe?
All prescription drugs and devices sold in America go through a rigorous, long, and expensive schedule of testing and retesting before they get to a pharmacy. Most nonprescription, over-the-counter products also go through clinical trials.
People who participate in a clinical trial use new products such as medications or medical devices under carefully controlled conditions before they are available in stores. The variations are unlimited: In some trials (also called “studies”), separate groups of participants may use differing dosages of a medication; in others, some participants use the actual product while others use a placebo that has no active ingredients.
“To me, women who participate in clinical trials for breast cancer are some of the real heroes of medicine,” says William J. Irvin, MD, a medical oncologist who heads up clinical research at the Bon Secours Cancer Institute at St. Francis Medical Center in Richmond. “Many women, who can be acutely ill at the time, agree to take part in a clinical trial not knowing whether they will benefit at all. It’s a selfless act.”
Baskerville’s participation in the study was successful. She is still on Cymbalta although the trial has ended, and she takes one additional drug to stave off a reoccurrence of her cancer.
In April she received the report she had been waiting for — she is cancer-free.
Baskerville was able to return to her beloved garden this year, and with help from her grandson, she says her yard is as beautiful as ever. “I’m almost back to my normal self,” she says. “All I have to do now is take my medications for another three years, and I’m good to go.
“I am so thankful that I didn’t wait to have that mammogram,” she says. "I would say to any woman who sees this article, 'Don’t skip that mammogram.'”
There is no lack of breast cancer information online. Following is a list of some of the more popular sites. For most women, the single best source of information on breast cancer is their physician.