Popular breast cancer myths busted

Patients at Toronto hospitals often have misperceptions about the causes of breast cancer. Do deodorants, breast implants or underwire bras cause breast cancer? The answer is no for all three cases, according to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

As a nurse working in Toronto, Arlene Dedis sometimes finds herself helping patients understand the different types of factors that cause breast cancer. She has discovered that, among other myths, patients often believe that a person’s genetic makeup is the main factor that contributes to their risk of developing the disease.

“They have family members that have different cancer types so . . . the first thing they think of is: If somebody has (a type of) cancer, will I end up with . . . cancer? And with women, the first (cancer) they’re going to think of is breast,” Dedis said.

In reality, according to Natalie Gierman from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation in Ontario, family history and genetics account for only five to 10 per cent of breast cancer cases. Lots of people look surprised when they find out these statistics, Gierman said.

Many myths exist about the causes and detection of breast cancer. Some of the myths are harmless, like the one that links wearing underwire bras to cancer. Others – like alcohol having no effect on a woman’s breast cancer risk – are more serious in that they can prevent women from taking some necessary precautions to reduce their risks of developing breast cancer.

Gierman, the director of health promotion, policy and advocacy at the Toronto-based foundation, has seen that many women believe the myth that alcohol has no effect on breast cancer risk.

“If somebody hears that alcohol is not a risk factor and they can drink as much as they want, then they might be putting themselves at risk,” Gierman said. “Alcohol is a known risk factor.”

Gierman has seen studies that show all types of alcohol increase the risk of breast cancer. In fact, if a person has two or more drinks a day, they can increase their risk of breast cancer by up to 25 per cent.

The popular myth that alcohol doesn’t impact the risk of breast cancer is especially worrying when recent studies show that binge drinking among young women is becoming a public health issue, Gierman said.

Although men can also get diagnosed with breast cancer, women have a much higher risk of developing the disease. One in every nine Canadian women is expected to develop breast cancer during her lifetime, Gierman said. In contrast, less than one per cent of all breast cancer cases involve men.

The high number of women diagnosed with the disease has led the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation to launch pages on its website that inform readers about the known causes of breast cancer. The foundation had discovered, through surveys and other research, that many women had inaccurate inaccurate information about the causes of breast cancer.

“Many of them are very misinformed about what real breast cancer risks are,” Gierman said. “They also really felt like there was nothing they could do.”

Marsha Davidson, the executive director at the Breast Cancer Society of Canada, believes it’s important for people to know the facts about breast cancer.

“I think education is important for everybody and the more informed we can all be, the (better) chances we’ll have of combating any disease we may encounter in our lives,” she said.

Davidson, who lives in Sarnia, Ont., hopes that rather than believing the myth about genetic makeup, more people will consider making changes to their lifestyle.

“Especially in the type of breast cancer that hits postmenopausal women, there’s definitely a strong link between obesity and breast cancer,” Davidson said.

She has seen studies that show people’s diet, the amount of exercise they get, as well as the amount of pollution in their environment will influence their risk of developing breast cancer. However, many people don’t know that environmental factors can have an effect on breast cancer risks.

Other myths surrounding breast cancer include the false information that bruising the breasts or having an abortion can cause the disease.

Throughout 20 years of working as a nurse, Dedis has found it difficult to find the origins of the different myths. Patients generally tell her they heard the information from someone or somewhere; however, they don’t specify a particular source.

Dedis has attended conferences that, among other things, informed her of the different misinterpretations about breast cancer causes. She believes knowing what’s real has helped her address some concerns.

“You can pass that knowledge on to everybody,” Dedis said. “If you’re educated (about breast cancer) then you can educate others, whether it’s family members or friends or people that you meet along the way.”

Mothers pump breast milk for babies in need

When Jacqueline Ernst, a first-time mother, gave birth nine months ago, she realized that some babies can’t tolerate formula and have a vital necessity for human breast milk.

Her son, Grayson, was born eight weeks premature and Ernst, 27, initially fed him breast milk as well as formula. Grayson, however, had a bad reaction and staff at the William Osler Health Centre in Brampton, Ont., informed Ernst that her son is lactose-, milk protein- and soy-intolerant. Due to his condition, he cannot tolerate any type of formula.

“It made our decision that we were going to use breast milk a very obvious choice,” Ernst said. “We didn’t really have any other options.”

Her son’s condition prompted Ernst, who lives in Waterloo, Ont., to donate breast milk to other babies in need.

In Canada, many mothers donate breast milk informally. Donors and recipients find each other largely through online networks since only one breast milk bank exists in the country, Ernst said.

She searched online to find a network that helps breast milk donors and recipients connect.

“I knew that I had (leftover breast milk) in the freezer and we weren’t going to end up using it and it was going to expire,” she said.

Through the online network “Human Milk 4 Human Babies,” Ernst found a family requesting breast milk and donated to their baby daughter who, like Grayson, couldn’t tolerate formula.

Emma Kwasnica, who resides in Montreal, organized “Human Milk 4 Human Babies” about a year ago. Previously, she had encouraged mothers in need of breast milk to post requests on her Facebook profile page for anyone who could help. When this method thrived, Kwasnica, 33, realized breast milk donors and recipients needed a better way to connect.

The “Human Milk 4 Human Babies” network currently consists of 130 community pages worldwide, including pages for every Canadian province, Kwasnica said.

“We don’t set people up with each other; we don’t screen donors; we don’t provide bloodwork,” she said. “We trust that mothers are smart enough to figure this out for themselves.”

Kwasnica believes mothers wouldn’t put their babies in danger by taking breast milk from donors they don’t trust. She hopes women request blood records from donors and ask them screening questions before taking their breast milk.

“We’re not activists in the sense that we’re out there trying to convince people to do this,” she said. “We’re providing another option for families who have chosen to share breast milk.”

However, Dr. Gideon Koren, director of the Motherisk program at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, believes mothers who require breast milk need to obtain it through a controlled system that can test for the milk’s safety and quality.

According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, milk banking in Canada began in the early 1900s. However, many milk banks closed in the 1980s due to a growing fear of HIV transmission. Today, the only breast milk bank in Canada operates in Vancouver.

Canada needs more breast milk banks, Koren said. He believes the problem in creating them is in the government’s ability to provide sufficient resources for processing all the breast milk.

“We need to have advocacy to pull the government to do it,” he said. “I don’t believe that it’s safe to do it through social networks.”

Donated breast milk that has not gone through medical tests could contain traces of medication or infections, Koren said.

Stéphane Shank, a spokesperson for Health Canada, agrees that obtaining human milk from the internet or directly from individuals raises health concerns. Other dangers exist, in addition to the risk that the milk could be contaminated with bacteria or viruses, he said.

“Improper hygiene when extracting the milk, as well as improper storage and handling, could also cause the milk to spoil,” he said.

Nevertheless, many mothers continue to use online networks to obtain breast milk.

Stefanyie Hamilton gave birth to twins, Elijah and Aviyah, five months ago. She breastfed them since their birth; however, her breast milk supply began reducing significantly.

Hamilton, 32, found breast milk donors on the “Human Milk 4 Human Babies” network. She now drives from Hamilton, where she lives, to other cities throughout the province, including Toronto, every two to three weeks to pick up breast milk donations. She has received breast milk for her twins from approximately 30 different mothers over the past three months.

Hamilton has never asked donors to provide medical records; however, she talks to the women and asks questions about their health and lifestyle to ensure their milk is safe.

“(Breast milk donors) have to be nursing a child or have had a child to be able to produce it,” Hamilton said. “These women who are donating know the value of it. They’re not out to hurt my children; they’re out to benefit my children.”

Mammogram controversy distracts from real issues

Sheila Vaudrey compares the need for women to have routine mammograms to the need for schools to call routine fire alarms. Sometimes mammograms can worry women and cause unnecessary stress. However, Vaudrey considers these routine procedures important steps in detecting breast cancer early, similar to the way routine fire alarms prepare children in escaping fire before it spreads.

“If it is (a tumour), it could be that one time out of 99,” she said, “but do you want to miss it?”

On Nov. 21, the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care released new guidelines for breast cancer screening in women aged 40 to 74. The recommendations update previous guidelines from 2001.

The new guidelines recommend that women aged 40 to 49 not screen routinely with mammography and that women aged 50 to 74 have mammograms every two to three years.

The recommendations bewildered Vaudrey, who is 44 and a breast cancer patient.

“I’ve been shaking my head through this whole time and saying, ‘I don’t get this,’ because it doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.

Vaudrey feels that if women under 50 follow the guidelines, malignant tumours could spread very quickly before women discover them.

The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation estimates that 20 per cent of all new cases of breast cancer in Canada will be diagnosed in women under 50. Further, their statistics show 10 per cent of all breast cancer deaths in Canada are in women under 50.

The new guidelines led to debates regarding mammography all over the media, said MJ DeCoteau, founder and executive director of Rethink Breast Cancer. She spent days following the release of the guidelines answering emails from confused women. DeCoteau emphasized that her charity supports personalized screening and informed decision making.

Vaudrey, who lives in Ottawa, believes routine mammograms play a crucial role in helping women detect breast cancer early. She disagrees with the new recommendations.

“Yes, you’re going to save money on tests that don’t need to be run. Yes, you’re going to have fewer people scared, thinking they have cancer and then it turns out they don’t. Yes, you’re going to subject them to less radioactive material,” Vaudrey said. “But most of us . . . will accept the risk of a false positive because it’s a huge relief to know your cyst is benign.”

Vaudrey would like to see women start routine mammography at age 40, at the very latest, and earlier if there’s any reason to believe a woman is at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

“I don’t like the idea of leaving it later than that; I really don’t, especially now when I see what I’m going through,” said Vaudrey, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago and is currently undergoing a second round of chemotherapy.

DeCoteau, 41, understands that many women under 50, like Vaudrey, are concerned about the new guidelines. When she launched the charity Rethink Breast Cancer in 2001, she wanted to engage a young audience and respond to the unique needs of young women going through breast cancer.

Rethink Breast Cancer, based in Toronto, is in support of the task force’s guidelines. The charity works with oncologists who helped DeCoteau understand the research supporting the recommendations. Studies show that more screening for breast cancer didn’t necessarily change the outcome, she explained. She feels frustration that mammography screening guidelines have become a controversy.

“We’ve been arguing about mammography for decades,” DeCoteau said. “I think it’s kind of deflecting from some important issues like . . . Why has there been so little improvement? Why are young women still dying of breast cancer? Why are any women still dying of breast cancer? Why are more and more young women getting breast cancer?”

Mammography is really good at detecting slow-growing, early-stage breast cancer; however, it’s not as good at diagnosing aggressive advanced breast cancer, DeCoteau said. The latter is what kills women.

In the mid-1980s, DeCoteau’s grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“She didn’t tell anyone about this lump that she had found and by the time she showed my mom, it was practically visible beneath her blouse,” DeCoteau said.

In 1988, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer after a mammogram showed a cancerous tumour.

“(It was) very, very, very small for a breast cancer tumour,” DeCoteau said. “My grandma did well, with her late, big lump. My mom was dead within five years. Her breast cancer was caught as early as possible, yet she didn’t have a good outcome.”

Dr. Richard Birtwhistle, vice-chair of the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care which released the new guidelines, doesn’t consider routine mammography comparable to routine fire alarms. While false fire alarms can inconvenience people, there isn’t a lot of risk involved unless someone falls and breaks her leg or something similar happens, he said.

“The issue is that a lot . . . of women are going to have false positives (with mammography),” Birtwhistle said. “Some of those women actually will go on to not only have a biopsy, but be told they have cancer and actually be overdiagnosed and have surgery or chemotherapy when, in fact, they never needed it.”

Birtwhistle and the task force didn’t look at the cost of mammography when they composed the guidelines. Instead, they studied the evidence surrounding the benefits of mammography and risk of breast cancer.

“Although we’re not recommending it for women 40 to 49 . . . we’ve actually extended the recommendation from 69 to 74. So, in fact, there would be more women, in that age group, getting mammography,” Birtwhistle said.

For women like Vaudrey, who still wish to start routine mammography prior to 50 years of age, Birtwhistle recommends they talk to their doctor. The guidelines won’t prevent women from having mammograms.

Meanwhile, rather than focus on the controversy surrounding early detection and mammography, DeCoteau hopes everyone will begin to pay more attention to breast cancer causes and treatment.

“There are problems with mammography,” she said. “Instead of saying, ‘this isn’t good enough; women are still dying,’ it’s just all about ‘well, we just need to screen more women.’ I don’t think that’s OK.”

Breastfeeding in Toronto becomes more public

When Johanna Hume of Toronto breastfeeds her seven-month-old daughter in public, she doesn’t feel concerned that anyone will complain.

“I will breastfeed anywhere and I’ve actually never encountered any problems,” she said. “I’ve never had anybody . . . request that I go somewhere else or anything of that nature.”

Hume believes all Toronto mothers should breastfeed wherever they need to, because they do it to keep their babies healthy.

She’s not alone. In Toronto, breastfeeding in public has become more common.

“That’s what babies need and this is not a matter of exposing oneself for the sake of exposing oneself,” she said.

She feels comfortable breastfeeding her daughter, Natalie, in stores and restaurants without covering herself.

“I’ve never heard anybody express that they’re concerned about the kind of repercussions that might occur or they don’t seem to be concerned about people telling them not to,” Hume said.

Garth Whyte, president and CEO of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, has seen breastfeeding in Toronto restaurants become more common and more accepted over time.

“It was more of an issue 20 years ago than today,” he said. “For previous generations, you were supposed to stay home and I think that’s changed.”

Like Hume, Whyte hasn’t seen significant resistance towards mothers who choose to breastfeed their children in public.

“We really haven’t had any major complaints about this issue,” he said.

As a La Leche League Canada leader, Teresa Pitman has also seen an increase in mothers who breastfeed in public.

“There are more mothers breastfeeding (now) than there were 20 years ago, so you’re certainly going to see more breastfeeding in public,” she said.

La Leche League Canada is a national organization that encourages mothers to breastfeed and provides them with support and information on breastfeeding. Mothers who have been confronted by people for breastfeeding in public usually call this organization to report the incident. However, these types of reports are uncommon, Pitman said.

“The majority of people, for their whole breastfeeding time, will never have a negative comment or a negative reaction,” she said.

Signe Sohrbeck believes mothers who are worried about breastfeeding in public have to, most of all, overcome feelings of discomfort about exposing themselves.

Sohrbeck breastfeeds her seven-month-old son, Lucas, in public without covering herself with a blanket.

“I am from Denmark and that’s just the way we do it over there and it’s accepted all over,” she said. “You don’t have to cover up and people won’t question you. People don’t feel uncomfortable about it either.”

When Sohrbeck breastfed in a Toronto restaurant, some people made jokes that she’s not Canadian because of her comfort with breastfeeding in public.

“They’re just surprised,” she said. “They’re supporting me and they think it’s a great thing.”

Sohrbeck believes when mothers breastfeed in public, it helps to keep their life normal.

“You can’t go and hide all the time; you need to continue your life,” she said.

Teresa Pitman hopes to see an increasing number of Toronto mothers who overcome their discomfort about exposing themselves and breastfeeding in public.

“In Scandinavian countries, people don’t even notice a lot of the breastfeeding in public; it’s just taken for granted. And in the United States, there’s a lot of discomfort with people breastfeeding in public in different places,” Pitman said. “I think Toronto’s probably in the middle.”

Nevertheless, the lactation consultant at Toronto East General Hospital, Karen Smith, knows there will always be certain mothers who prefer to breastfeed in private.

She works at the hospital’s Breastfeeding Resource Centre and sees many different mothers. They make their choice on whether to breastfeed in public based on cultural and family influences, as well as personal feelings on the issue.

“I think it’s a very personal choice; I think it depends on how comfortable you are with (exposing) your body,” Smith said.

Ivanka Gotcheva of Mississauga breastfed her daughter Victoria, now six, for almost two years. However, whenever she breastfed in public and she saw people around her, she always looked for a secluded or private area. She also used a blanket to cover the baby and herself.

Gotcheva didn’t worry that others would make negative comments about breastfeeding in public, but she sensed that some people would feel uncomfortable if she breastfed in front of them.

“Maybe some people don’t feel comfortable seeing someone exposing her breasts,” she said, “even if it’s breastfeeding.”

Artist depicts real women

As an artist, when Neville Clarke paints nude females he portrays the women and their breasts realistically.

“My painting, generally, is a depiction of what I see about that individual,” he said. “In terms of augmenting or changing anything … I don’t do that.”
Artists have featured nude females in their work for thousands of years; however, in the past, they haven’t always portrayed women realistically. In contemporary art, most artists depict the attributes of nude women as they appear, without attempting to idealize the paintings.

Although artwork of female nudes doesn’t prove exceptionally popular with most patrons, artists like Clarke, 51, continue to paint nude women. They believe the female body is naturally beautiful and artists don’t need to change breasts or other attributes in paintings.

“Generally, in most cases (contemporary artists) try to be truthful in terms of the depiction of a particular person,” Clarke said. “I try to capture that particular esthetic about that particular individual.”

David McClyment, a fine arts professor at Centennial College in Toronto, has seen that although many artists paint nude women this way, paintings of nude women are still not very popular among patrons.

“There really isn’t a big market for naked-people paintings,” said McClyment, 58.

However, this doesn’t discourage Clarke, who works in Toronto. He believes that, like himself, most artists are driven to paint because they’re passionate about the subject with little or no regard to concerns about whether the painting will sell.

Several years ago, Clarke painted a series of paintings featuring pregnant women. He painted most of them nude because of his passion for painting the naked female form.

He knew that in North America patrons don’t appear to adore the nude figure in art, but decided to create the series of paintings anyway.  Pregnancy had never been depicted in a series of artwork in North America, he said, and this inspired him further to complete it.

“Generally, (in art), most of the nude body is actually shunned and in my opinion, I think it’s one of the most beautiful forms,” Clarke said.

Sharlene Rankin, director of the Telephone Booth Gallery in Toronto, has also seen that collectors are generally not interested in buying artwork of female nudes, although some do find it beautiful.

Many patrons feel that if they buy art featuring nude women they wouldn’t have a place in their home where they would be able to display it, she said.

“I’m not sure that the female nude is something that is of interest to most collectors at this time,” Rankin said. “Do you really want to be staring at someone’s breasts … while you’re having dinner or have your grandmother over in your living room?”

Nevertheless, artists have shown a fascination with the female nude since prehistoric times, McClyment said. Prehistoric artists sculpted the famous Venus of Willendorf, a statuette of a nude female figure with augmented breasts.

The fascination with the female nude continued throughout later history. Thousands of years after the sculpting of Venus of Willendorf, Renaissance art from the French Academy shows that artists continued to depict the female nude figure, McClyment said.

During the Renaissance period, nude females were often idealized in paintings and artists usually painted flawed attributes differently. Ultimately, they created many generic paintings of female nudes that adhered to the model of the idealized woman set by the French Academy, McClyment said.

In this way, most contemporary art of nude women differs from classic examples from the past.

“I don’t find that the female form is idealized the way it used to be,” Rankin said. “The form is presented as a realistic rendering of a woman.”

As a woman, Rankin, 33, doesn’t feel that paintings of nude women represent the female body as a type of commodity.

“We’re bombarded in daily culture with the body in advertising and I don’t think there’s a shock value and I don’t think it’s necessarily degrading,” she said.

When he paints nude females, Clarke doesn’t look at their bodies as a commodity.

“Part of it, really, is giving power to women,” he said.

These paintings often help women realize the beauty of their own unique body, Clarke said.  By painting women’s bodies as they appear, he individualizes them and shows that they’re not a generic commodity.

Clarke believes he is not alone in painting female nudes this way in contemporary art.

“Most artists, I think, are pretty consistent in terms of their ideas or their objective of creating a depiction of what they basically see,” he said. “I do try to depict (female nudes) as accurately as I can.”

Learning to love your breasts

When she began developing breasts in the fourth grade, Beatrice Nguyen was certain she was destined for a “solid rack.”

However, as she hit puberty the growth slowed down and she quickly became a member of the “itty bitty titty committee.” Despite this fact, Nguyen is happy with her A-cup breasts.

“I think phrases like ‘the itty bitty titty committee’ are humorous,” Nguyen said. “I’ve made my peace with (my breasts). I’ve had them all my life and they’re not going anywhere.”

Though the media and fashion industry thrive by playing on women’s biggest insecurities, Nguyen believes small-breasted women should focus their energy on accepting their natural figures and avoid creating a body image that is unrealistic. She shuns products such as the double-padded bra and the stores that sell them since they encourage women to hate their natural figures.

“Women should be comfortable with themselves,” she said. “What’s with the false advertising? It looks so weird … it creates an illusion that you don’t have and it throws people off.”

Nguyen was not always comfortable with her slight frame and says going to a middle school where the other girls were well-endowed made her feel a bit insecure. It wasn’t until she graduated from high school that she learned to accept her body and her confidence skyrocketed.

“My friends used to call me a pancake with no filling,” she remembers with a laugh. “I was really upset about it when I was younger, but now I find it funny. I was really skinny; I had no breasts and no butt so I didn’t know what to do with myself … thankfully, as I grew up I filled out.”

Lorraine Hewitt says breasts are fun, fabulous and though they’re all different, they’re all very lovable.

Regardless, women everywhere spend countless hours listing the things they would change about their breasts given the opportunity. Hewitt, a sex educator and burlesque performer who lives in Toronto and goes by the stage name CoCo La Crème, credits this unfortunate situation to the media.

“The media plays on women’s self-esteem in relation to all aspects of their bodies,” she said. “The benefit to it is that when women are unhappy with their bodies they spend money to make themselves feel better.”

No matter what their breast size, women are stereotyped. From the “big-breasted bimbo” to the unsexy, small-breasted woman, Hewitt says women are constantly bombarded with images that can be harmful to their psyche.

Breast size is extremely important to women because it’s the body part they are most aware of even before they are developed, says Hewitt.

“When we are children, we think about our breasts and what they’re going to look like when we grow up,” Hewitt said. “In our society, (breasts) help to define women and women are definitely judged by their breast size and breast shape … the symmetry of their breasts, whether they’re pert or saggy … it’s something that women can become extremely self-conscious about.”

Anjelica Cole, a voluptuous woman with a 36DD bra size, acknowledges the attention her breasts sometimes brings but proudly states there’s nothing she would change about them.

The 23-year-old student who lives in Toronto wishes more women would embrace their natural physique and stop trying to change external factors to bring internal happiness.

“Everybody looks better in their natural state,” Cole said. “When you highlight your natural beauty … everything else falls into place.”

While Cole promotes a healthy self-love, she admits she wasn’t always so fond of her body.

“I actually used to hate my body shape,” she said. “I felt heavy and like everybody (in high school) was smaller than me … I didn’t realize I had a really nice shape.”

Like Nguyen, it wasn’t until after high school that Cole truly learned to embrace her body. And while she says she can sometimes feel the jealousy or judgment from other women, as well as the lustful gaze of some men, she believes that to be their issue and not her own.

“I once saw this picture that said, ‘Be yourself because everyone else is taken,’” she said. “It made a lot of sense because women are always trying to be something else and not accept what they have.”

“Breasts don’t bring happiness or a better outlook of yourself. If you don’t like what you see in the mirror and you want to change it, no matter how much you change it you’re not going to like (the final product).”

Both Nguyen and Cole feel strongly that they would never opt for cosmetic surgery as a way to feel accepted by society. While Nguyen says the idea has simply never appealed to her, Cole maintains the happiness associated with surgical enhancements is only temporary.

Hewitt believes the onus for teaching and learning self-acceptance falls on individuals and their families rather than society. She says this is because our society has placed more importance on selling and commerce instead of the promotion of positive self images.

“I think that no matter what size (your breasts) are, and no matter where they sit, you have to love them and love yourself,” she said with a smile.

Pilates for breast cancer

Two years ago when her daughter stopped gaining weight despite being breastfed regularly, Rachel Budlanski never thought it had something to do with breast cancer.

The then-29-year-old mother of two who lives in Toronto, ON took her daughter to a variety of pediatricians and nursing specialists, who assured her the baby was fine despite the weight loss and bloody stools. What doctors failed to notice were the changes in Budlanski’s breasts.

“I kept having to buy new bras because the old ones got too tight,” Budlanski said. “And my right breast, which I was feeding from exclusively, was inflamed.”

After speaking to her doula, who advised her to consult her doctor immediately, Budlanski was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer that tends to go undiagnosed due to a lack of symptoms in patients. Budlanski had both breasts removed in a double mastectomy in order to prevent a reoccurrence of the disease.

“My initial reaction was shock and terror,” she said. “I felt like at some point they were going to call me back and tell me that they had made a terrible mistake.”

After surgery, most breast cancer patients are offered physiotherapy as part of their rehabilitation process. Budlanski, however, took a different route – she decided to try Pilates.

Nikki Bergen, Pilates instructor and owner of Grace Corps Studio in Toronto, ON, had been working with Budlanski’s brother and sister-in-law and was recommended to help with Budlanski’s rehabilitation. Like most breast cancer patients, Budlanski found it difficult to complete everyday tasks and didn’t believe she had the energy to take on any type of exercise, so she was hesitant to try Pilates. She also feared the vigorous exercise it might worsen her situation.

But after a couple of classes, she noticed her pain had lessened and she had more energy. “Beyond it helping me physically, it also helps me feel normal and gives me a sense of achievement,” Budlanski said.

After hearing Budlanski’s story, Bergen thought about other breast cancer survivors who might benefit from Pilates as an alternative to physiotherapy. With Budlanski as her inspiration, she created the Pink Method, a rehabilitative Pilates class geared specifically toward breast cancer patients.

“Not a lot of women have the resources for a private physiotherapist if it’s not covered under their insurance,” Bergen said. “They have no one to come in and monitor them and work with them to rehabilitate.”

The biggest issue Bergen had with the lack of available support was the host of women who were experiencing challenges in their lives with simple tasks such as washing their hair and holding their children. She immediately got certification as a breast cancer Pilates instructor through the Pink Ribbon Program and set up her first workshop, which took place in May 2011. She also teamed up with burlesque dance instructor Kaitlyn Regehr to create a class that was both beneficial and fun for participants.

“Primarily the focus is on restorative and rehabilitative exercise,” she said. “Women who have had breast surgery often have complications with lymphedema and have (lost) muscle tissue.”

Bergen says the process of exercising can be challenging for survivors since their instincts teach them to “curl up and hunch their shoulders.” She believes her class works for a few reasons.

“It’s a lot of camaraderie,” she said. “You have women in the room who have all experienced something similar and even if everything about them is different, they can all find common ground.”

In addition to creating a friendly environment, Bergen tries to make her class productive by teaching women to use the tools given to them by their physiotherapists.

“Nine times out of 10, the women have (their flex band) at home but it’s in a closet somewhere,” Bergen said. “We teach them how to use it productively … and in a way that they’re able to do it at home.”

Sat Dharam Kaur, a naturopathic doctor at Trillium Healing Arts Centre in Owen Sound, ON, says Pilates and yoga are a great rehabilitative alternative for women who have had breast surgery. The movements involved with these practices help improve circulation, mobilize the arms and lower the risks of lymphedema.

However, despite the usefulness of these alternatives, Kaur says doctors who recommend these options are in the minority.

“The occasional doctor might offer it to women and there’s a growing amount of research in medical journals on the benefits of (these options),” she said. “It’s been proven that yoga can benefit people going through treatment for cancer.”

Kaur says that the reasons that yoga can be so beneficial go beyond the physical.

“Women who have gone through breast cancer surgeries need to reclaim their bodies in some way and make their bodies their home,” she said. “Yoga and Pilates can be very helpful in creating a loving, caring and sensitive way into awareness in loving the body again and learning to trust it (again).”

While the programs can be useful, survivors may not always feel up to the task. Budlanski admits to sometimes feeling uninterested in taking on the challenge.

“The last time Nikki was here, I felt like turning her away,” Budlanski said. “I felt nauseous and extremely tired, (but) I pushed through and halfway through the class I felt so much better.”

Bergen’s main goal with the Pink Method is to make the information women are given by their doctors easy to incorporate into their lives in a fun and supportive way.

“A lot of people dread (physiotherapy),” she said. “Often times it’s painful, so it’s good to do this in a supportive environment with other people who understand what you’ve gone through.”

Bergen’s next Pink Method Workshop will be held on Jan. 22 at Trinity St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto.

Still fabulous after breast cancer

Laurel Sopher makes the perfect pin-up as she laughs and flashes a bit of thigh in her pink trench coat.

Two years ago, Sopher was chosen as one of 14 breast cancer survivors to pose for the Pink Ribbon Pin-Ups calendar and ultimately became the cover girl. The project was the brainchild of Kaitlyn Regehr, host of the Slice Network’s ReVamped, and executive producer Jordan Balaban. Regehr was prompted to begin the project after she was approached by a breast cancer survivor who had been asked to pose for a photo shoot revealing her mastectomy scar but was uncomfortable with the idea.

“She didn’t want to be immortalized as a victim,” Regehr said. “And although these projects are amazing in raising awareness, I became concerned about what it does for the individual woman and how she views herself post-treatment.”

After a bit of thought, Regehr assembled a team to help bring the calendar to life and worked with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF) to find survivors willing to share their stories.

“We were so naive going in,” she said. “And we were really struck with how emotional the process was.”

“We had this idea that some of the women would want to be photographed without their wigs, but they wanted to be feminine and it became about exploring their femininity and womanliness post-treatment,” Regehr said.

Regehr describes the calendar as a “celebration of fabulous women” and aimed to create a fun environment as she and her team pampered the women while turning them into 1950s-style pin-up models.

Sopher, who first discovered a lump in her breast in 2000 while seven weeks pregnant, received an e-blast from the CBCF about the project. After having a double mastectomy and dealing with infertility issues, she was excited at the prospect of participating in a project that would show a positive post-cancer image.

“I sent in a couple of pictures of me and my kids on the beach building sand castles,” Sopher said. “Then one of my husband and I out at the coast standing on a cliff right over the ocean and Kaitlyn contacted me saying, ‘You have what we want.’”

Sopher remembers how difficult it was to deal with breast cancer while pregnant with her first child. Though doctors initially refused to believe a pregnant woman could have cancer, Sopher eventually received a diagnosis and was told she would need chemotherapy. She hesitated to begin out of fear for what the treatment might do to her baby.

“I told them, ‘I don’t care what happens, you are not taking this baby,’” she said.

Though her doctors assured her the treatment would be safe, Sopher refused it unless they could connect her with someone who had gone through the process. Her husband, Mark, found an online group called Pregnant with Cancer, and within 24 hours Sopher was contacted by women who received chemotherapy while pregnant.

“I had three different women email me pictures of their babies,” Sopher said. “They all said (to) have the chemo (and that) the baby would be fine.’”

Despite their reassurances, fear lived in Sopher’s heart. She tears up as she remembers the day her first son, Alexander, was born.

“I prayed we made the right decision,” she said. “And he was born with hair while I didn’t have any … so I knew the chemo didn’t get him.”

Three years later, Sopher gave birth to twin boys after her niece donated an egg to her. As she reflects on her life thus far, she understands things could have been very different.

“I look back now and some days it seems so far away. Then when I’m recounting my story, it’s still front and centre,” Sopher said. “I never want to forget because if I (do), it’s not going to mean anything for anybody else.”

Joanie Raine, another Pink Ribbon Pin-Up who dazzles in diamonds and a white satin dress, says she became involved as a way to show women that there is life after cancer.

The 52-year-old wife, mother of three and grandmother of five resides in Calgary and has battled breast cancer twice in her life, most recently in August 2010. After receiving the e-blast from the CBCF, and a little encouragement from her daughters, Raine submitted a few photos for the 2009 casting call and was chosen as a model.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “I wanted to show women that you can go on to have a full life because when you’re in the midst of chemo you wonder, ‘Am I ever going to feel normal again?’ But you get your life back.”

After her most recent diagnosis, Raine had a double mastectomy in May 2011. She says this has been the hardest and most emotionally draining part of her journey.

“I think I would have agreed even if the doctor said we need your arm amputated,” she said. “(But) it wasn’t so much about sexuality it’s that women are meant to have breasts. That’s the way we were created.”

After her surgery Raine vowed to move forward and remains positive by spending time with her family, maintaining her hobbies and exploring new ones.

“I started painting for therapeutic reasons and people started (asking) to purchase my work,” she said. “I’m having my first art show (this year).”

Having a supportive family throughout her journey has been important to Raine. However, one of her biggest lessons was in the importance of friendships.

“Some of the friends I thought would gather around me when I was sick didn’t know how to handle me because I had the big C word,” Raine said. “I learned the simplest thing can mean so much … sometimes I’d have a friend just come up and hug me, and there were no words spoken but they didn’t need words.”

Raine’s ultimate goal is to hold on to her positivity and help other women cope with their battle, especially through the power of small gestures.

“When you’re in the middle of a diagnosis, you need hope that there can be life after cancer,” she said. “I don’t want to forget about others; I want to go through this experience being better, not bitter.”

Breast Cancer & Men

Male Breast Cancer
When faced with the words breast cancer, we tend to see images of pink ribbons, pink apparel and sometimes even pink cabs. Rarely do we ever think about men.

Five years ago, at the age of 79, Sheffield Edwards was told he had breast cancer. Edwards, a retiree who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. had recently undergone a double bypass heart surgery and developed a small lump in his left breast that he assumed was a side effect of the surgery.

“Honestly, I used to play with it. (Later) when I went to the doctor, he was examining me and asked, ‘What’s wrong with that?’” Edwards recalled. “When I explained, he took me to get a mammogram and they found out it was cancerous.”

Like most men, Edwards never thought the lump could be breast cancer. Upon receiving his diagnosis, he set up an appointment with a surgical oncologist and was scheduled for a mastectomy.

“It was a surprise because I never knew or heard of men with breast cancer,” he said. “To me, that was something women got but they had to operate and cut the whole thing off.”

While Dr. Ralph George, a surgical oncologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, says some men may feel emasculated by dealing with what is often regarded as a female disease, Edwards approached the situation in a different manner.

“I didn’t get any ill feelings about it. I was just interested in seeing if I could get rid of it,” he said. “I just took it as it came. Everything went well and after the surgery I started getting chemo.”

One per cent of all breast cancer patients are male. Every year hospitals in Toronto see a handful of men who are diagnosed with the disease. These men, who usually range from the ages of 60 to 70, may have discovered a lump or had an inverted nipple and thought nothing of it. A routine check-up at the doctor’s office can result in a breast cancer diagnosis.

“It’s generally not well known that it’s possible,” George said. “I think some of them feel that their masculinity itself has sort of been challenged by getting a female-associated tumour.”

George says the biggest issue with male breast cancer is that most men don’t feel supported as a man dealing with this disease.

“In our cancer centre there’s nothing (specific) for men,” he said. “We have the support we have for women but there’s nothing specific for men. They’re just plugged into the system we have for women.”

The main reason for the lack of male-specific support is simply because of the low numbers of men who are diagnosed yearly as well as the way men are raised in western culture, he says. The majority of men simply don’t address their health issues early.

“Men are a little harder to reach in these situations,” George said. “It doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from it, but they’re harder to reach. It’s probably more cultural … Men aren’t ‘allowed’ to be needy.”

Virginia Yule, executive director of Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada, located in Toronto, says that men who are diagnosed with breast cancer aren’t necessarily looking for emotional support from an outside source.

“Men seek support differently than women do,” Yule said. “The support they are looking for, a majority of time, concerns information to help them make decisions or to understand information that they are receiving from their oncologists.”

The reason she believes men are looking for information more than anything else is due in part to the unfamiliar territory they’re now in.

“Anybody diagnosed with cancer suddenly enters a whole new world with new terminology,” she said. “You have a limited time with your doctor and so often you have questions afterwards.”

While most women with breast cancer seek support through a group forum, which Yule says can be considered an important step in the healing process, Edwards didn’t feel as though he needed it. He was invited to a support group through the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, and even though he says he received useful information, he wasn’t seeking emotional support.

Edwards has now been cancer-free for five years and continues to focus on leading a healthy and positive life.

“I don’t allow it to bother me,” he said. “I try to put it out of my thoughts and go along with the doctors and hope that everything works out all right.” 

Caring for your nipple piercing

A professional piercer at New Tribe Tattoos says that there is one common piercing he does fairly often.
Fitzgerald says he does many piercings, but this one in particular is done more frequently than he would have ever thought.
“I’d say I do at least four or five of them a week,” he said.
After getting a piercing, it is important to take care of the piercing in order for it to heal properly.
Especially when the piercing is in your nipple.
New Tribe Tattoos is located at 232 Queen St. W.Toronto. Shayne Fitzgerald, 22, has been working with the business for three years. Fitzgerald explained that the way a nipple piercing heals all depends on who pierced it, and how it was cared for afterwards. The piercer has to insert the needle deep enough in the nipple so that the body doesn’t reject it. If the piercing gets rejected, there is a higher chance of infection and it can hurt a lot more to re-pierce due to scar tissue.
Patrick Bannon, 27, from Oakville, had this experience with his nipple piercings. Bannon had both his nipples pierced, twice. He now has scars. He first got the piercings when he was 18, but only had them for a couple of years when he decided to take them out. However, he then decided to get his nipples re-pierced. The piercer though followed the scars from before, going through scar tissue. They never ended up healing properly, causing Bannon a lot of irritation and the piercing got caught on everything.
“I don’t know if it was because there was scar tissue,” he said. “It was just annoying.”
Fitzgerald explained that the more times you get a piercing, the more scar tissue you’re going to have. And when there’s more scar tissue, there is more pain. He doesn’t enjoy piercing a customer knowing he or she is going to be in a lot of pain.
“They pay to come in and have a piercing done,” he said. “They don’t pay for being in a crap-load of pain.”
He also said that it is harder and more painful to pierce a man’s nipple than a woman’s. Men have smaller nipples, so the piercers have to pull the skin out more to pierce the nipple deep enough. But that doesn’t mean it’s not painful for women.
Jane Hanson*, a 20-year-old  student at Seneca College*, remembers how painful her piercing was. She got her nipple pierced two years ago.
“When I got it done, I didn’t even want to wear anything,” she said. “I didn’t want anything to touch it because it hurt so much.”
She remembers only being able to wear nothing but a baggy sweater.
“I had it on so that I could make sure it didn’t touch me,” she said. “And it was winter so it was freezing outside.”
Fitzgerald said it’s easier for women to get infections.
“Especially for girls who need to wear bras, it can be pushed around and there is bacteria that can get in the piercing,” he said.
Nipple piercings have to be cleaned at least twice a day. These piercings can easily be infected while they are healing and Fitzgerald explained it is very important to look after it. Right after he pierces a nipple, he cleans it with a vegetable-based glycerine soap to help the body heal.
Hanson ended up removing her nipple piercings after a year because of all the aftercare.
“I hated taking care of it,” she said. “It was too much maintenance for me and I don’t have that much time to do it.”
Hanson cleaned her piercing about four times a day with sea salts, which dried it out. She then had to constantly put lotion on her nipple. She said it was annoying taking care of her piercing and was glad when she took it out. Hanson’s nipple completely healed within a few days.
“When I took it out it started closing in four hours,” she said. “Now you can’t even tell it was pierced.”
Fitzgerald says he can’t stress enough how important it is to take care of nipple piercings.
“The nipple is a pretty sensitive spot,” he said. “Just be careful with it.”

*name has been changed