Starting today, you’re going to see a lot more pink ribbons in stores, on television, and online. Since 1985, October has been recognized as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, stemming from a partnership between the American Cancer Society (ACS) and what is now the AztraZeneca HealthCare Foundation. Each year, organizations like Avon, the National Football League, Delta Airlines, LOFT, Panera Bread, and countless others participate in “Pinktober” activities to help educate the public and raise awareness for the disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 200,000 women and approximately 2,000 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States. While the majority of these cases involve women over the age of 50, 11% of new cases are discovered in women younger than 45. The risk increases for those with a family history of breast cancer, namely a mother, sister, daughter, father, or brother, but it can also develop when a person does not exhibit any risk factors or have a family history. For these reasons, doctors believe that early detection and screening tests can help to save thousands of lives each year.
There are certain lifestyle factors that can decrease or increase your risk for breast cancer. Among factors that decrease your risk are getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, breastfeeding your children, and being older when you first started menstruating. Factors than can increase your risk include, but are not limited to, having your first child after age 30, using oral contraceptives, drinking alcohol, and having dense breasts (1)(2).
The above factors are somewhat in a person’s control, but there are certain factors that you cannot change: age, gender, and genetics. We already know that simply being a woman increase your risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer and as you age, your risk increases. Mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes also result in a 55-65% and 45% chance, respectively, of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Screening vs. Genetic Tests
Screening and genetic tests will not necessarily prevent breast cancer from developing but they do help to identify signs or symptoms. The three main types of screening tests are a breast self-exam (BSE), a clinical breast exam (CBE), and a mammogram. You should be familiar with the look and feel of your own breasts so that when performing a BSE, you will be aware of any changes. When your doctor or nurse performs a CBE, it is a good opportunity for you to learn the technique so you can perform a BSE on your own. ACS recommends that women age 40 and older should have a mammogram every year but those at high risk may start at a younger age.
The most common type of genetic testing is predictive gene testing, which looks for gene mutations that can cause disease. If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancers then genetic testing for a BRCA gene mutation can help to identify this risk factor.
Several research and education initiatives are underway for understanding and working to prevent breast cancer:
- Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) — the world’s largest telephone health survey system that collects information by state.
- National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program — provides cancer screening and diagnostic services to low-income, uninsured women.
- Sister Study — long-term study of women, who have sisters with breast cancer, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
- Guide to Community Preventive Services — reviews current research to decide which programs most effectively reduce risk and increase screening.
- Health of Women Study (HOW) — the first international online study for breast cancer.
By Madeline Kronfeld
Online Learning Tips Contributor