Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Risk Factors, Testing, and Research
By Madeline Kronfeld
Contributor, Online Learning Tips
We’re more than halfway through National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time when organizations and individuals contribute to raising both awareness and funding for breast cancer research and education. While October is the dedicated month, it’s important to remember that breast cancer, and all forms of cancer, affect people on a daily basis.
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.
These 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 increases 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 help in identifying 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.
Additionally, recent research indicates progress in identifying, preventing, and treating the disease:
- In 2015, researchers discovered a gene offering hope in treating estrogen receptor-positive (ER-positive) breast cancer.
- The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II identified five key findings about breast cancer, including the benefits of walking and losing weight and the harmful effects of smoking.
- Acupressure on your ears may ease the pain and fatigue caused by breast cancer, according to a study published in Cancer Nursing.
The healthcare industry is growing at a rapid pace and experts predict that it will be the biggest industry in the United States in the next three years. According to U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking, nine of the top 10 jobs in 2016 fall in this field. With an increased need for healthcare professionals, there is also a greater need for education. American Public University’s Health Sciences degree programs teach technical and leadership skills in the fields of nursing, public health, health information management, and more. Learn about these and other programs and how you can make a difference in our future.