Breast cancer is a weapon of mass destruction.

Anyone involved in the battle to find a cure recognizes the importance of increasing awareness and of early detection. However, what is missing from this formula is the effect of early detection and survival rates when there is a delay in detection and diagnosis of breast cancer through no fault of a patient.

As we continue to wage a battle against breast cancer, the following changes need to become a national priority: Minimizing the time it takes to get an appointment with a specialist after one finds a lump in their breast; minimizing the time it takes for a patient to get an appointment for a mammogram; minimizing the time it takes a patient who has been told they have a “suspicious” mammogram to get an appointment to see a breast specialist; and vastly improving the quality of care received by patients while they await diagnosis. Too often, the healthcare provided to patients during these periods of tremendous anxiety is unacceptable.

Today marks the first day of National Breast Cancer awareness month. We at the Independent Women’s Forum, recognize this month by remembering the two women in our IWF family who lost their lives to breast cancer this year, by holding the hand of another who is just beginning her battle today, and by praying for yet another who will undergo a breast biopsy later this week — several weeks after being told she had a suspicious mammogram.

Our own anecdotal evidence demonstrates that too often, when one complains of breast pain, they are told they have a cyst and are advised to “just watch it for a few months”-and valuable time is lost before the cancer is diagnosed. We know that after finding a lump in one’s breast, it can take anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks to get a screening test. We know it can take several more weeks just to get an appointment for a consultation with a breast surgeon. And weeks more for a breast biopsy, and even another to get the biopsy results.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2007 alone, 178,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women and approximately 2,030 cases will be found in men. An estimated 40,460 women and 450 men will die from breast cancer. Until a cure for cancer is found, the most effective way to save lives is through early detection and diagnosis. Imagine how many lives are lost by a 2-6 week delay in getting an appointment for a screening test or a breast biopsy?

On October 9, the Independent Women’s Forum will honor two extraordinary women by bestowing our fourth annual Woman of Valor Award to Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Komen Race for the Cure and R. Gaull Silberman, a founder of IWF who lost her life to breast cancer this year. We honor these women because of their commitment to the human spirit and their courageous battle against breast cancer.

In 1978, Nancy Brinker promised her sister, Susan G. Komen, that she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer forever. Suzy, her only sister, had been diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer when she was only 33 years old. Brinker remembers how her sister was told by one surgeon that she had been cured after undergoing a subcutaneous mastectomy. Six months later she found out that the cancer had metastasized. Ultimately, her sister lost her life to breast cancer. The lesson to be learned is that a delay of any sort, can kill you.

The IWF family is grateful to Nancy Brinker for the promise she made to her sister. Under her leadership, Komen for the Cure has invested nearly $1 billion in the fight against breast cancer. Also, we are particularly indebted to Drs. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., and Wayne Frederick at Howard University Hospital, Dr. Robynne Chutkan at Georgetown University Hospital, and many others for their caring nature and prompt screening, diagnosis, and treatment of those we love and have loved.

Recently, Nancy Brinker said that “As the American public and both political parties did when launching the war on cancer more than three decades ago, we need to summon the will to make cancer a national priority again.” We couldn’t agree more.

Michelle D. Bernard, a lawyer by training, is the president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum and author of the soon to be released Women’s Progress, How Women are Wealthier, Healthier, and More Independent Than Ever Before.