There’s pink everywhere you look. That’s because pink is the color of breast cancer awareness.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to increase awareness of the disease. Most specifically, it’s about getting out the message of the importance of finding breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat.
After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in the U.S. In this U.S., about 1 in 8 women born today will get breast cancer sometime in their life. And while white and black women have about the same rates of breast cancer, black women are 20 to 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer. But the good news is that if it is found early, most women can survive breast cancer.
What about men? Although breast cancer can and does occur in men, it is very rare. And while it can occur at any age, it is usually more common in older men. Men should be aware of the symptoms listed below and see their doctor if they develop any of those symptoms.
Causes and Risk Factors
The exact causes of breast cancer are unknown. Most women who get breast cancer usually never know the exact cause. However, there are some risk factors to know about. Some of them you can control and some you cannot, but you should be aware of all your risks so that you and your Primary Care Provider can make a decision about screening.
Genetic mutations. People inherit changes to certain genes, called mutations. The commonly known ones are BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Age. Breast cancer risk increases with age, specifically after age 50.
Past breast cancer. Having breast cancer in the past makes it more likely to get it a second time.
Hormone exposure. Having a menstrual period before 12 and menopause after age 55 means more exposure to certain hormones.
Dense breasts. This means breasts with less fatty tissue, making it hard to see cancer on a mammogram. Also, dense breasts increase breast cancer risk.
Family history of breast cancer. This means a mother, sister or daughter who has had breast cancer, or a number of extended family members on the mother’s or father’s side who have had breast cancer.
Radiation treatment. Getting radiation treatment to the chest or breast before age 30 is a risk factor.
Taking the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES). Those women whose mothers took the drug to prevent miscarriages in the period it was given (1940-1970), or those women who took the drug, are at increased risk.
Breast Cancer Screening
Breast cancer screening, a way of testing for the disease before there are signs or symptoms, is vital. The major cancer organizations recommend that at age 30, all women have a healthcare evaluation to see when they should start screening for breast cancer, and when they should start having mammograms.
Mammograms are the highest standard of testing for breast cancer. A mammogram is a special X-ray to see inside the breast. It can find breast cancer early, when it’s small and before a lump can be felt. Yet 20 to 30 percent of women still do not get mammograms as prescribed. That’s why awareness is important, since mammograms have also gotten better. Today, for example, the 3-D mammogram makes a mammogram even more accurate.
Those at high risk for breast cancer should speak with a doctor about screening recommendations. The guidelines for high-risk women may include screening more often, and other tests, such as ultrasound and MRI, in addition to mammograms.
There are various breast cancer symptoms, but many breast cancers have no obvious symptoms at all. While the typical symptoms are listed below, be aware that these symptoms can occur with other non-cancerous conditions. You should see your doctor right away if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.
- A lump or thickening in the breast or in the armpit that feels different from the rest of the area
- A change in the appearance, size or shape of the breast
- Pain anywhere in the breast area
- Skin irritation or dimpling of the breast skin; red, flakey or peeling skin
- Discharge from the nipple (other than breast milk), such as blood
- A nipple newly inverted, or turned inward
A breast cancer diagnosis can be made through multiple tests, including a mammogram, ultrasound, MRI and biopsy (using a needle to remove a sample of tissue or fluid from the breast). In addition, your doctor may do blood tests that check for cancer activity in the body.
Cancer diagnosis is made in five stages: stage 0 (zero), called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is breast cancer in the milk duct but that has not spread, and stages I through IV (1 through 4), which are used for invasive breast cancer, which is cancer that has entered the breast tissue.
Depending on the type of breast cancer, and how much it has spread, there are various treatments or combinations of treatments. These can include:
- Precision medicine
…and others. If you have breast cancer, you and your treatment team will decide together what sort of treatment will work best and what you think you can handle. Some of the treatment has pretty severe side effects that not everyone wants to put themselves through.
While there are some cancer causes that cannot be controlled, there are some things that you can do to overall promote your health and aid in early detection. . These steps include the following:
- Do breast self-exams
- Drink alcohol in moderation, or not at all
- Eat a healthy diet
- Limit hormone therapy for post-menopause
- Keep a healthy weight
If you’re a woman over age 40, request an appointment with your Primary Care Provider to talk about your risk for breast cancer and what your mammogram should look like.