Even saying the words "breast cancer" will evoke fear in most women. I am what I call a very fortunate "avoider," because over the years this disease has stormed through my family.
My mother and all of her three sisters suffered through it. My mother was stricken when she was in her mid-40s, and after radical treatment, she survived until just before her 98th birthday. The next two sisters passed away in their 60s, while the youngest sister passed away recently at the age of 94. In spite of their longevity, I became convinced very early on that I was high-risk and I needed to be proactive.
I began having a mammogram once a year as soon as they were available, and each time I followed up with my doctor, as I still do. I also visited the genetic counselor at St. Luke's, and because my mother was still living, they were able to test both of us to see whether we carried either of the two known breast cancer genes. Neither of us was a carrier, which is a relief and certainly is important to know.
However, I still wanted to know why my mother and all my aunts were so vulnerable to this disease. I concluded it had to have been environmental. All four of these women were born in the same small Idaho town, all graduated from the same high school, and all were fairly slim and ate healthy food from their own garden. I became certain that there had to be another commonality - and of course there was: They were all smokers.
They grew up during the Great Depression, when smoking was almost a social requirement. It seemed that everyone from movie stars to cowboys always had a cigarette in hand. Smoking was an ordinary occurrence after school, at work, in the kitchen and even in the bedroom. No one objected to it. In fact, cigarettes were available everywhere for anyone. I can even remember my grandfather rolling his own. He carried a tobacco pouch and papers everywhere he went, and he often settled back for a smoke while I was sitting on his lap listening to stories of his adventures.
Then many years later, the world wised up. The surgeon general and family doctors began to warn of the dangers of smoking and people began paying attention. For many, this warning came too late. Nicotine is very addictive and might even be one of the worst addictions to overcome. But great numbers of people did stop smoking, which I am certain extended their life expectancy.
In the meantime, however, breast cancer is still prevalent. Though it is lethal, women are still smoking. I am also concerned that young people are taking up the habit, considering it "cool." This has allowed smoking to become a socially acceptable habit once again.
Science has not yet been able to determine all the causes of breast cancer, but there is evidence to suggest that smoking is one cause. My hope is that parents, teachers, health care providers, survivors and those who struggle every day with this disease will speak up to discourage smoking.
If that happens, smokers and all other people who are exposed to this bad habit will be healthier. My hope is that this combined effort (along with a mammogram every year and self-checking once a month) can help reduce the incidence of breast cancer.
Everyone will benefit.
Carolyn Terteling is a former Boise mayor and City Council member.