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Ming-Na Prescribes Breast Cancer Awareness

By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

On the hit NBC series ER, complete strangers rely on actress Ming-Na's medical expertise to save their lives. But Ming-Na never imagined that a real health crisis - breast cancer - would strike so close to home.

"Vivian is one of my closest friends and godmother to my daughter," says Ming-Na, who has played Dr. Jing-Mei Chen since ER's sixth season. "When she told me she had breast cancer I was in shock because she's young, and she had no family history of the disease."

Once her friend was diagnosed, Ming-Na says she immediately educated herself about breast cancer and discovered that the majority of women who get breast cancer have no family history of the disease. The American Cancer Society reports that a woman's lifetime risk for breast cancer is now one in seven.

Betting on breast cancer odds is not something Ming-Na recommends. Instead, the actress, who won the World Poker Tour: Hollywood Home Game tournament for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, says she hedges her bet by performing regular breast self-examinations.

"I do breast self-exams because I believe it is really important to know your body," states the actress who voiced the lead role in Mulan and garnered critical acclaim for her role in Joy Luck Club. "You can't recognize something that feels different if you aren't aware of how your breast usually feels. The easiest way to remember is to simply check when you're taking a shower. Just make it a habit."

To help reinforce the habit correctly, easy-to-follow breast self-examination instructions can be found on the Komen website.

"The self check is particularly helpful in saving breasts and finding tumors that are mammographically invisible, which are about 10%-12% of breast cancers," says  William C. Wood, a surgical oncologist and chairman, department of surgery, Emory University in Atlanta. "Self checks help find them early when they are more easily treated and the breast-sparing surgery can be applied."

Keeping abreast

A breast self-exam ultimately may have saved Vivian's life.

"Vivian discovered her lump by doing a self-check," Ming-Na says. "She caught it very early which was critically important because her cancer was a particularly aggressive form. By getting diagnosed so early, they were able to treat her with great success."

But many women are not as fortunate.

Annually, breast cancer claims the lives of nearly 40,000 women and 400 men.

According to the Komen Foundation, more than 216,000 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

More women could be saved if a clear message could be sent about mammograms, which due to suspect science and media hype have been maligned recently. But many breast cancer experts have a favorable opinion about mammograms.

"There is no controversy about mammograms in my opinion," Wood states. "They are overwhelmingly effective. When we have looked at randomized trial data, the women who are offered screening mammography have a 20% decline in breast cancer deaths compared to the group that is not offered it."

Wood adds that while the public seems to think there's a breast cancer epidemic, the news is actually far more positive.

"The age-adjusted rate of breast cancer in the United States actually has been flat since the 1930s," Wood reports. "We also are living a lot longer so we see more breast cancer each year even though the age-adjusted rate is flat."

Wood says that despite the great increase in the number of people with breast cancer, the total number of people dying of breast cancer in the United States has also been flat from 1930 to 1990.

"In the last ten years, we have seen a 22% drop in the number of deaths from breast cancer," Wood says. "This is attributable to two things: the use of screening and the increasing use of adjuvant therapy, particularly tamoxifen."

Ming-Na says improved breast cancer treatments, like those funded by the Komen organization, "directly benefited" her friend.

"She had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation," Ming-Na says. "She had it all. It was a very rough year for her."


But new advances in treatment are making it less arduous both physically and emotionally to beat breast cancer.

"Breast-sparing is now available for almost everyone," Wood states. "Initially if women have a tumor that is too big relative to the size of their breast for lumpectomy, we now give them chemotherapy first since they would be getting it anyway. About 80% or more patients will have sufficient reduction in size of the tumor that afterwards they can have breast-sparing surgery rather than mastectomy."

Woods notes that not only does this strategy spare the breast but the survival results are the same as if they had a mastectomy.

And better treatment can be applied to women who have aggressive cancers and/or who are at high-risk. Wood says that dose-dense therapy and the addition of the taxane drugs are very effective. He also notes that the addition of Herceptin for women who over-express the HER2nu breast cancer gene which is typically less responsive to chemotherapy can also have their risk diminished significantly.

"The most powerful treatments are those that attack the hormone receptors - tamoxifen and for post-menopausal women the aromatase inhibitors," Woods says. "These treatments are much more effective than chemotherapy for the three-quarters of women who have receptor-positive breast cancer."

Wood stresses that chemotherapy has a very important role in the fight against breast cancer. While there is roughly a 50% annual reduction in risk of recurrence after treatment with tamoxifen, when the latest chemotherapy regimens are added to treatment there is an additional 40% reduction of residual annual risk.

While Ming-Na's comfortable taking risks at the poker table, she believes avoiding the surgical table is a far better strategy for women. And to improve the odds of getting a winning hand, Ming-Na says that people should not forget the mind-body connection as a critical component to healing. 

"A patient must participate in their own recovery," Ming-Na states. "My husband's grandmother had breast cancer 20 years ago and was given six months to live - she's now 85 and still healthy. She really illustrates that the power of the mind and the soul is extremely important in the healing process."

And Ming-Na is grateful her friend caught her breast cancer early enough to get treatment.  

"It's a gift of life when you get cured of a horrid disease," says Ming-Na, who is looking forward to the upcoming DVD release of Mulan 2. "Vivian is doing really well and she is testimony to the fact that you can survive breast cancer - you can beat it."

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Created: 9/2/2004  -  John Morgan & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Reviewed: 9/2/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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