If you had to assign October a color, what comes to mind? Auburn for the fall foliage? Red and green for apple picking? Orange and black for pumpkins and scarecrows? These are all winning combinations. Yet October has increasingly become known for a different type of hue. You may have seen this color around your communities in the form of ribbons, stamped on the back bumpers of cars, or even on the gear of famous NFL football players. What color am I referring to?
This month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a disease that affects 1/8 women in the U.S per year. In 2016, 249,260 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in women and men combined (246,660 women, 2,600 men), making it the most common cancer diagnosis in the U.S.
According to the CDC:
“Not counting some kinds of skin cancer, breast cancer in the United States is—
- The most common cancer in women, no matter your race or ethnicity.
- The most common cause of death from cancer among Hispanic women.
- The second most common cause of death from cancer among white, black, and Asian/Pacific Islander women.
- The third most common cause of death from cancer among American Indian/Alaska Native women.”
While death rates for breast cancer have decreased over the years, don’t develop a false sense of security, as about 40,450 women in the U.S. are still expected to die from breast cancer in 2016 alone. Moreover, negating lung cancer, breast cancer continues to reign as the highest cause of death compared to any other cancer in the U.S.
Early detection is crucial for breast cancer treatment and survival. Breast cancer is likely to develop before symptoms begin to show. The earlier the breast cancer is caught, the more likely it is that breast cancer treatment will be successful.
Mammograms, or breast x-rays, help detect breast cancer. Women who have regular mammograms have an increased chance of catching breast cancer early, are less likely to need a mastectomy or chemotherapy, and are more likely to survive. For those in the normal range of breast cancer risk, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that women should consider starting mammogram checkups around age 40. From age 45 to 54, a mammogram should be conducted every year, after which point a mammogram is only necessary every 2 years. If you have a family history of breast cancer or may have had an environmental exposure to cancer-causing toxins, the ACS recommends getting a mammogram at age of 40, followed by a Breast MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging).
Follow Up Visits after a positive test result for breast cancer is imperative. For example, the CDC states that of the over 40,000 cases of breast cancer, 40% of African American women are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. Studies have shown that the higher death rate is in part due to the gap that exists between a positive mammogram result and the immediacy of the follow up visit and treatment.
As the CDC states
- “More black women experience follow-up times of over 60 days (20%) compared with white women (12%) after a mammogram that is not normal.
- Waiting longer for follow-up care may lead to cancers that spread beyond the breast and are harder to treat.
- Only 69% of black women start treatment within 30 days (compared with 83% of white women).”
By closing the gap between breast cancer detection, follow up checks, and treatment, chances of surviving breast cancer increases.
Breast self exams (BSE) and Clinical exams (BCE) are another early detection method. Self-exams enable you to become well acquainted with the look and feel of your breasts. That way, if there are any changes, you can alert your healthcare provider. Some warning signs of breast cancer include swelling, skin irritation, dimpling, nipple changes – including pain, thickening of the nipple, scaliness, the nipple turning in, or nipple discharge – breast pain, redness, change in breast size, shape, or feel, or a lump.
Genetics and Family History
1/10 breast cancer cases are linked to BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation. These genes are responsible for suppressing tumor growth, and the mutation can be inherited from both the mother and father’s side of the family. Women with the BRCA1 mutation have a 55-65% increased chance of getting breast cancer, while the BRCA2 mutation holds a 45% increase. Men can also inherit the BRCA2 mutation as well, increasing their lifetime risk to 6.8%.
If you have a family history of breast cancer or know someone who has the BRCA1/BRCA2 gene, you can get a Genetic Test to see whether you have inherited the mutation. A medical geneticist, your primary care doctor, a specialist, or a nurse practitioner can order the DNA test, which involves providing a saliva or blood sample. If you are African American or are within the Hasidic Jewish population, you are at an increased risk of inheriting the BRCA1/BRCA2 gene mutation, making it more imperative to undergo genetic testing and maintaining regular mammogram visits.
Talk To Your Doctor
Mammograms, MRI’s, and self-assessment tests have risks. These tests may involve both false-positive and false-negative results. False-negative results are more prevalent among younger women because of their denser breast tissue. In addition, mammograms involve radiation, which carries its own risk factors. For women over 40, however, the benefits of an annual mammogram may outweigh the radiation risks. Talk to your doctor about your risk of breast cancer, and whether a screening test is in your best interest.
Importance of Breast Cancer Awareness
As October comes to a close, don’t let your regular mammogram visits slip by. We may only officially recognize Breast Cancer Awareness in the month of October, but breast cancer awareness, checkups, and treatment is nearly a life-long process. The NFL may be packing up their pink cleats at the end of the month, but only when we find the cure for breast cancer can we truly leave our pink ribbons on the field.
American Cancer Society (ACS). Cancer Statistics Center (n.d.). https://cancerstatisticscenter.cancer.org/#/
Breastcancer.org. U.S Breast Cancer Statistics (September, 2016). http://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics
Center Disease Control (CDC). Breast Cancer: CDC Vital Signs (November, 2012.). http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/breastcancer/
CDC. Breast Cancer Statistics (September, 2014). http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/statistics/index.htm
National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. Breast Cancer Self Exam (n.d). http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-self-exam
National Cancer Institute (NCI). Breast Cancer Screening – Patient Version (January, 2016). https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/patient/breast-screening-pdq#section/_43
Susan G Komen. Warning Signs of Breast Cancer (March, 2016). http://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/WarningSigns.html