Mindy Ricioli was 33 when she saw an episode of Oprah on television that made her take the lump in her breast a little more seriously. Located near her left armpit, she had noticed it off and on for about four months but thought it was a cyst because there was no history of cancer in her family.
The Oprah episode was about a woman named Erin Kramp who, after learning she had advanced-stage breast cancer, recorded a series of videotapes to impart a mother’s wisdom — life lessons she would not have a chance to personally share with her daughter.
After watching the show, Ricioli, a Santa Rosa mother and wife, decided to have the lump looked at just to be sure.
“I think I was kind of making excuses. I was in denial,” Ricioli said, admitting that from the moment she first felt the lump, its presence was always somewhere on her mind.
That fall of 2010, she found out she had invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer. She said her life passed before her eyes.
“When they said it wasn’t a cyst, I was trying to be hopeful that it wasn’t cancer, but I was so scared,” she said.
“My husband, he’s a numbers guy. He would look up the statistics for a 33-year-old getting a diagnosis. ... That helped me when you think about those odds, they’re in your favor.”
Increasingly, that is true about breast cancer, which is diagnosed annually in an estimated 253,000 American women, or 1 in every 8 U.S. women in their lifetimes, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
Though still a formidable disease — it killed more than 40,000 women in the U.S. in 2014, including 66 in Sonoma County, according to the latest data available — more women diagnosed with breast cancer are now living longer lives.
The trend is causing a shift in how breast cancer is perceived among both survivors and their health care champions, one where the disease is increasingly viewed as a chronic illness that can be managed, like heart disease or diabetes.
“The issues that breast cancer survivors face are not unique to any of the other cancer diagnoses — it’s just that their potential of surviving is higher,” said Rose Cook, breast care coordinator at the Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Breast Care Center.
Kaiser’s Breast Care Center treats a significant share of the county’s new breast cancer cases. Each year, the center averages about 200 new cases, Cook said.
The mortality rate, adjusted for age, for breast cancer patients in Sonoma County has declined in the past three decades, from almost 33 deaths per 100,000 women in 1988 to just under 18 deaths per 100,000 women in 2014.
During that period, the rate of new breast cancer cases averaged about 138 per 100,000 women.
Statewide, the incidence of breast cancer among women has declined 10 percent while mortality rates have declined 37 percent since 1988, the year the California Cancer Registry began collecting such information.
While odds of survival are in favor of many women diagnosed with breast cancer, health professionals and patient advocates say they are careful not to minimize the risks and suffering caused by the disease.