Pat Halpin-Murphy was diagnosed with breast cancer more than 20 years ago, and beat it.
“I believe that I was spared so that I could do work that helped other women and their families who were diagnosed with breast cancer, and that's what I do," said Halpin-Murphy, who is president and founder of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition. “I just love it."
Halpin-Murphy now lives just north of Philadelphia but noted that her husband, Philip Murphy, taught at Franklin & Marshall College for a while, and that she still spends a lot of time in central Pennsylvania.
How do you view the new mammogram guidelines that women of average risk wait until age 45 to start getting them?
It's a step in the wrong direction. Most women we speak with would prefer to have a second mammogram or an ultrasound rather than to find cancer at a later, less treatable stage. The advent of 3-D mammograms will alleviate much of the American Cancer Society's concern over false positives since 3D mammograms reduce false alarms and increase early detection. The PBCC continues to recommend mammograms for women beginning at age 40 for the average woman until a more perfect test is developed.
What's your response to the women who say, “I know I need to get a mammogram, but I just can't afford it right now"?
There's good news, because in Pennsylvania it's free. If you're insured in Pennsylvania, there is no cost for a mammogram. We got legislation passed in the 90s saying insurers will cover all costs for mammograms for women in this state. If you're not insured, there's good news as well. That is, we have a free mammogram program called Healthy Women through the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
What's happening with long-term trends on breast cancer? Are there signs that fewer people are getting it or dying from it?
The very good news is that the survival rate is getting longer and longer, so more people are in Stage 3 survival. The goal is either one, to find a cure for breast cancer, or two, to improve treatment to the point where it becomes a disease that you treat and then monitor. People are living longer, and that is very, very good news, partially because treatments are improving and partially because we're probably detecting it earlier, at it's more treatable stage.
So no notable movement on how many people get breast cancer?
No decline in the number of people being diagnosed. Unfortunately, women are still getting it, and until we find the cause and find the cure, that part, I'm sad to say, remains the same. What is improving is that it's no longer a death sentence for most women.
What do you see as the most promising recent developments?
3-D mammograms. They are much improved over 2-D mammograms, and they result in earlier detection and fewer false alarms. They're a new development over the last couple of years, and starting Oct. 5 of 2015, they are also required to be covered by insurers in Pennsylvania at no cost to the woman getting the 3-D mammogram.
Anything on the treatment side?
Yes, targeted therapies that are tailored to the characteristics of that particular woman's tumor. That's sort of the wave of the future. In addition, there's a great new test out called Oncotype DX DCIS, to help women with ductal carcinoma in situ decide whether or not to get chemotherapy. The test can look at the protein markers in their tumor and predict the likelihood of recurrence or not.
Breast cancer is largely but not only a woman's disease. When men get it, are the signs similar?
Yes. Unfortunately, men usually take note of it later, because they're not in the mindset of getting a mammogram or looking for lumps. But it presents very much the same way.
Approximately half to one percent of all breast cancers are in men.
What's your advice to someone who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer?
This is a good time to reach out to your family and friends and work and church networks. They will be very supportive. Some people turn inward when they get a breast cancer diagnosis, and feel that they have to soldier on alone. So many women have told me that by reaching out to others, they find that so helpful, and that people do help them get through this tough period in their life.
What do you want people to know about life after breast cancer?
It's great! I was diagnosed quite late, stage 3, and had a very tough course of treatment -- blood clots, infections and various difficulties. It was a tough journey. But once I got through it, I've been in good health and cancer-free.
Finally, what does all of the attention on social and print media, including LNP, mean to the breast cancer cause?
It's really important. It helps us raise money for research and focuses women on the importance of yearly mammograms starting at age 40. And it shows support for women who are fighting breast cancer.