Sept. 28, 2001 – There were no clues in Valerie Francis's life to indicate she was at risk for breast cancer. She was only 33, and no one in her family had suffered the disease.
When her nipple began to leak, she went to her doctor. A biopsy indicated cancer.
"I was in shock," she said.
That was 11 years ago, and Francis is proof that you can survive breast cancer. As office manager at the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, wife to Joseph Francis Jr., and mother and stepmother to six children between the ages of 16 and 28 — Neema, Sharice, Shanelle, Tynisa, Deia, and Shara — she has a full and busy life.
As the nation observes October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Francis reminds women that they can live normal lives after breast cancer treatment. "It's not a death sentence," she said.
Francis does what she can to help women recover. She volunteers as coordinator for the American Cancer Society's Reach to Recovery program, which sends volunteers into hospitals and homes to help see people through breast cancer treatment. "No one should have to face breast cancer alone," she said.
She also urges women to get an annual mammogram. While physicians recommend that women start having mammograms at age 40, Francis said she is a living example that breast cancer strikes women much younger.
According to information on the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month website, breast cancer is uncommon in women under 35. About 82 percent of cases are found in women 50 and older. The risk increases with age and is especially high for women 60 and older.
Estimates for the year 2001 are that 192,200 people across the county will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Of that number, 40,200 will die. Breast cancer is the second-most common cancer in women, after from skin cancer. For the entire population, it is right behind lung cancer as the leading cause of death.
While no statistics are available for the territory, information provided by the Roy L. Schneider Hospital's cancer registry through the American Cancer Society show that 30 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. This accounted for about 20 percent of all cancers treated at the hospital.
More than two million women in the United States have survived the disease, and the American Cancer Society says that having an annual mammogram can reduce the chance of its being fatal by 63 percent.
The society also says mortality for black women is higher than for white women — because blacks are less likely to have regular mammograms.
According to the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month web site, the number of breast cancers detected each year has increased over the last two decades. However, mortality has dropped, thanks to earlier detection. The average five-year survival rate stands at 97 percent when cancer is caught before it spreads beyond the breast. It drops to 21 percent when the disease reaches other organs.
There are other risk factors besides age:
– Women who have had breast cancer before or non-cancerous breast diseases may develop breast cancer.
– If your mother, sister, daughter or two or more close relatives had the disease, your risk is greater.
– If you have a family history of breast cancer, genetic testing may indicate whether you are at risk.
– If you got your first menstrual period before you turned 12, your risk is higher — because the more menstrual cycles you have over your lifetime, the more likely you are to get breast cancer.
– If you have no children or if you gave birth to your first children after age 25 to 30, you are at greater risk than those who gave birth earlier.
Lifestyle also counts when it comes to risk. Decreasing fat, increasing fiber, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, limiting alcohol, staying active and not smoking are all ways to decrease your risk.
However, seven out of 10 cancers occur in women with no risk factors.
Mammograms at half price
To help women on St. Thomas and St. John detect breast cancer before it's too late, St. Thomas Radiology Associates, in conjunction with the local chapter of the American Cancer Society, is offering mammograms for $90 — half the regular price — during October.
"Make your appointment as soon as possible," receptionist Rashaan George urged.
She said as of Sept. 28, appointments were already booked through the middle of October. For an appointment, call 774-0265.
Fern LaBorde, who serves as president of the St. Thomas-St. John chapter of the American Cancer Society, said she knows of no similar program on St. Croix.
It is suggested that women who are not post-menopausal should schedule their mammograms for a week after the date their period should begin. This is the time when the breasts are the least tender, medical personnel note.
Regular breast self-examination and an annual examination by a physician may detect lumps which could be cancerous, but they are not a substitute for a mammogram, which can detect minute lumps that may or may not be cancer, the experts say.
To raise money for the local American Cancer Society chapter, the organization will sponsor its fourth annual "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk, Run, Roll" on Oct. 21. For details, see "Breast Cancer Walk, Run, Roll' is Oct. 21"


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