By JESSICA NICOSIA
For The Recorder
Breast Cancer Awareness month has done a lot to let people know about the risks of breast cancer since it was implemented more than 25 years ago.
But breast cancer is still the most common cancer among women in the United States other than skin cancer, representing 13.4 percent of the cancers diagnosed in Montgomery County and 11.4 percent of cancers in Fulton County according to St. Mary's Healthcare in Amsterdam.
Local businesses and organizations have made it their goal to make sure those diagnoses happen early, when the cancer is most treatable.
"We look at it now and Breast Cancer Awareness month is very prevalent," said Julie Pierce, director of community benefits and outreach at St. Mary's Healthcare. "But 16 years ago it wasn't as much."
Pierce is in charge of coordinating the St. Mary's Healthcare Breast Health Luncheon each October, started 16 years ago to support people diagnosed with breast cancer, their families, and supporters.
This year's luncheon on Oct. 28 will feature Michelle Walsh, vice president of nursing at St. Mary's, as the guest speaker.
There will also be vendors, raffles, and educational booths available at Riverstone Manor in Glenville that day.
The luncheon does not make a profit from the $20 ticket price, with the hospital funding much of the event itself. Any proceeds from the basket raffles go directly into an account that funds education for breast cancer detection and treatment for women in Fulton and Montgomery counties.
"It's important, because if caught early ... the odds of beating breast cancer is very, very, very good," said Pierce. "And I think the more knowledge we give people, the better it is for them to understand how important screening is, and also bringing awareness of the technology and the treatments and the tools we have today."
There are only 25 tickets left for the Luncheon this year, and Pierce said it usually sells out. Tickets can be purchased at the St. Mary's Hospital gift shop or by calling Evelyn Bianchi at 843-0720.
The same year that St. Mary's started its annual Breast Health Luncheon, Dr. Michael Sheridan of Amsterdam was touched by the disease.
"Sixteen years ago, when my wife was 38 years old, she was diagnosed with breast cancer," he said. "Like many breast cancer patients she had no family history and no risks whatsoever. And at that time our kids were little, and it was a tough time. It was a long eight months but she did very well and she's now a 16 year survivor. "I decided once we got her through all her different therapy and treatments that I needed to do something."
Two years after his wife's diagnosis, Sheridan read about the Avon Walk for Cancer in the newspaper and decided to get involved. He has participated every year since, and for the last nine years, has been the largest individual fundraiser in the New York City walk.
The fundraiser that has allowed him to donate the bulk of $780,000 over the last 14 years is his annual golf tournament, which is now in its ninth year. He started the tournament as a way to get the community involved in raising money for breast cancer, and this year it made $18,000 with 130 participants.
When Sheridan starts the walk this Saturday morning in New York City, he will have donated more than $31,000 this year alone.
"The awareness is a whole lot better now than it was 16 years ago, but a lot of money that we raise through Avon ... funds research," said Sheridan. "And then they also fund clinics where women who are either underinsured or not insured. So it's not just awareness that's important but also the research and helping people who don't have insurance."
Sheridan cites residents of Montgomery County as the major reason why he has seen such success in fundraising.
Bella Vita Salon on Route 30 in Amsterdam is a very different business that has seen similar outpourings of support for breast cancer awareness and fundraising. The salon has offered pink hair extensions to customers for $10 in the month of October for the past three years.
One hundred percent of the proceeds have gone to the Susan G. Komen Cancer Fund in years past, but this year, owner Jackie Discenza is donating the proceeds to the Fulton and Montgomery Counties Cancer Services Program Partnership.
"I'm going to keep it local because I think it's just nice to give back to the community," said Discenza. "And another big reason that I'm happy that I do this is that my sister is a breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed two years ago and she had a long battle for a year of treatment and it was very hard on her but she got through it. So that's another huge reason why I'm happy that I do it because I was touched personally by it. I think everybody knows somebody somehow that has had breast cancer. So many women battle it, and not everybody's as lucky as my sister."
The salon has raised $600 so far this month with the pink extensions.
Employee Mindy Rivenburgh will also be offering the extensions to Broadalbin-Perth High School students on Thursday, before the school's annual Patriot Pink Out soccer game.
The Patriot Pink Out started in 2009 when the Broadalbin-Perth varsity and junior varsity soccer teams decided to wear pink shirts to support Principal Robin Blowers, who was diagnosed with breast cancer that year.
"Back in 2009 was the genesis of this whole thing," said Brian Henry, varsity soccer coach and Biology teacher at Broadalbin-Perth High School. "It was the first time we ever made it to the state finals. It was a pretty magical run for us and one evening in October the boys decided to put together some pink T-shirts and they wrote on it 'Team Blowers.'"
It has grown into an all-day festival. Gift baskets, raffles, pink T-shirt and wristband sales, a performance by The Refrigerators, and two soccer games against Johnstown will make up this year's events.
"It's nothing short of remarkable," said Henry, adding that the local community has "been tremendous."
The event -- organized by Henry, junior varsity soccer coach and English teacher Dan Simons, and a parent committee led by Mary Caruso -- made $3,500 for the Susan G. Komen Cancer Fund last year. They hope to make more than $5,000 for the American Cancer Society on Thursday.
"Everybody knows somebody that's been touched by cancer either directly or indirectly," said Henry. "And nowadays it just means that the kids need to understand that it can touch their lives instantly, it can change their lives instantly, so if you can bring awareness to them and show that there is support out there, I think it speaks volumes to how they will react later in their lives if confronted with a situation.
"My soccer program is more than just a soccer program as well. The soccer program is a family and we support each other, and all we're doing is extending that olive branch to the rest of the community."
Amsterdam's city firefighters have also been spotted in pink shirts this year to support community members. They purchased the shirts from the International Association of Firefighters, a union for professional fire departments in the United States and Canada, which donates all proceeds to the Susan G. Komen Cancer Fund.
"We've been wearing them and getting a lot of good feedback from them in the community for wearing them," said firefighter Jeff Urbanczyk. "I think whenever you are in a position or are able to give back it's good to give back. And probably everyone you know or everyone you've spoken to, everyone has had someone touched or who has cancer. So a cause like this kind of hits home for everyone.
Wendy Lucas, the women's imaging supervisor at St. Mary's Healthcare, is dedicated to detecting breast cancer early so that there are more survivors.
This July, New York state was the fifth state to pass a law called the Mandatory Breast Density Notification Law. According to research compiled by St. Mary's Hospital, women who have a breast density of 75 percent or higher on a mammogram have a risk of breast cancer that is four to five times greater than that of women with little or no density.
"What that means for the consumer is that if you have dense breast we're going to send you a letter specifically saying that you have dense breast tissue," said Lucas.
This, said Lucas, prevents people from feeling a false sense of security after having a mammogram, and if they have dense breast tissue, lets them know they may want to ask their doctor about other tests and forms of detection.
The categories for breast density range from a one to a four. One is fatty breast tissue, which appears almost uniformly gray on a mammogram. A number four designates highly dense breast tissue, which is very glandular and appears almost entirely white on a mammogram.
Since breast tumors also appear white, the more dense the breast tissue the harder it is to detect a tumor.
"I use the example in my talks of trying to find a rabbit in a snowstorm," said Lucas. "That's like trying to find a cancer in a dense breast."
But Saint Mary's has gone a step further and purchased software that helps doctors evaluate mammograms more accurately. In the past, doctors had to objectively place women in a category of breast density. The problem with this method was that different doctors could place women in different categories.
The new volumetric assessment tool is a software program the hospital received this week, which analyzes each digital mammogram image and determines which percentage of the breast is dense tissue, placing it in a category. And while the new state law says that women need to be notified if they are a category four, St. Mary's radiology department has also decided to notify those who are in category three.
"What if you're a 74? You're so close to 75 you're really dense, so that's why we decided [to notify both]," said Lucas. "Because the difference between if you're a 74 percent or 75 percent that's not a big difference."
St. Mary's is the first hospital in the Capital Region to get this software, according to Lucas. The hospital is also looking to the future, researching an automated breast ultrasound that eliminates the error of user-dependent systems where the technician can miss a section of the breast if the patient moves.
"I'm in the position to find it," said Lucas. "My job is to search and seek and find the cancer."