Doctor’s family history of breast cancer drives desire to practice medicine
Featuring Dr. Louella Pritchette, WellMed at Lawnwood, Ft. Pierce, Florida
Breast cancer is personal for Dr. Louella Pritchette, family medicine practitioner at WellMed at Lawnwood in Ft. Pierce, Florida. She never met the grandmother for whom she is named. Her grandmother Louella died of breast cancer when she was just 45. In fact, her grandmother’s premature death greatly informed Dr. Pritchette’s drive to become a physician. “Her death is the main reason I carry the torch – in order to help others from suffering the same fate,” she says.
Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States according to the CDC. Breast cancer is defined as a condition in which cells or tissues in the breast grow or develop abnormally.
The breast has three primary components:
- Lobules – the glands that produce milk
- Ducts – the tubes that carry milk to the nipple
- Connective tissue made of fatty and fibrous tissue which shapes the breast
According to the CDC, the most common types of breast cancer are invasive ductal carcinoma, which begins in the ducts, and invasive lobular carcinoma, which begins in the lobules. Dr. Pritchette has seen both in her practice. She adds that it is important to be aware of inflammatory breast cancer as well. While it is more rare, it is a very aggressive disease in which the breast often looks swollen and red, or inflamed.
The CDC explains some breast cancer risk factors are out of patients’ control:
- Genetic mutation (BRCA) – BRCA is an abbreviation for breast cancer gene which has been found to impact a person’s chances of developing breast cancer
- Reproductive history (periods that began before the age of 12 and menopause that occurred after 55)
- Dense breasts
- Personal history with breast cancer or other non-cancerous breast diseases
- Previous radiation therapy before age 30
- Exposure to Diethylstilbestrol (DES) – a medication given to pregnant women in the United States between 1940 and 1971
- Family history of breast or ovarian cancer
Dr. Pritchette can attest to the importance of knowing your family’s health history. She says her grandmother’s experience made her acutely aware of the disease and its potential for her and her daughters. When a first-degree relative has been diagnosed with breast cancer, it increases your own risk of contracting the disease. First-degree relatives include maternal or paternal grandparents, parents, siblings and children.
Dr. Pritchette adds that it is important to know whether any first-degree relative was diagnosed with other gynecologic cancers such as ovarian, cervical, endometrial or uterine, as these can also increase the risk of a breast cancer diagnosis.
Some breast cancer risk factors can be controlled:
- Lack of physical activity
- Becoming overweight/obese after menopause
- Taking hormones during menopause for more than five years
- Not breastfeeding
- Alcohol consumption
It may be difficult to know whether you have breast cancer. Some people never experience any symptoms. In others, there may be changes in the breast, including a change in breast texture, lumps or nodules. Dr. Pritchette says the best way to detect breast cancer is with a mammogram, although she still encourages self-exams.
It’s also important to remember that men can be diagnosed with breast cancer. “It tends to be prevalent in men who are heavy-chested, have thyroid issues or are obese,” she explains.
Treatment of breast cancer varies by type and the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed. As a result, patients’ treatments vary widely and recommendations are made on a case-by-case basis.
According to Dr. Pritchette, the good news is that advances in the detection and treatment of breast cancer have progressed dramatically in the past 30 years. “There are more breast cancer survivors now than ever. That’s because of organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation and others that have brought awareness of breast cancer to the forefront,” she says.
“I am proud of my patients who are conscientious about regular screenings. I’m also proud of those who continue to fight this disease and those who have conquered it,” says Dr. Pritchette. “They are strong, wise teachers. To share that journey with them is a privilege.”