Updated: Feb 15, 2021
By Vanessa I. Farrell, MPH, MCHES
Let me get this out of the way – CANCER SUCKS!
If you have ever been diagnosed with cancer or if anyone you know or love has been, you know that it’s a scary and daunting reality that’s hard to come to terms with. No matter the cancer, no one wants to hear that six-letter word – it’s downright frightening. As with most cancers, a month is selected to highlight and bring awareness to that form of cancer. October is no different: it is designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month!
At the most basic, breast cancer is the type of cancer that starts out in the breast and may spread to other parts of the body. Women are often more susceptible to breast cancer, but men (yes, men!) can also have breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the overall rate of breast cancer diagnosis for women in the United States is 13%, which is about one in every eight women. This also means that there’s a seven in eight chance you will never have the disease. For U.S. men, those numbers are lower, about 1% of all breast cancer cases are men – that’s about 2,000 men a year, with a mortality rate of 5%.
When we look at breast cancer globally, the World Health Organization estimates that 2.1 million women are impacted each year by breast cancer, and for men the estimates are about one in 1,000 men. Despite these disturbing realities, the most alarming fact is that – while African Americans (both women and men) may have a lower number of diagnoses of breast cancer, these diagnoses often come at a later stage and with higher mortality than among white Americans. Specifically, an African American woman’s chance of dying from breast cancer is 39% higher than that of a white woman while the rate for black men is 76% higher than that of a white man.
So, what are the some of the most noted risk factors for breast cancer? When we look at risk, there are some risks we have control over – risks we can help to ward off by implementing lifestyle changes – and there are other risk factors we do not have any control over. The risk factors we cannot control are things like:
Age: Studies show that most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50.
Genetics: Some women may inherit certain genes that put them at higher risk of breast cancer.
Reproductive history: Having your first period before age 12 or starting menopause after age 55 exposes women to hormones longer, raising the risk of breast cancer.
Dense breasts: Because dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, it is harder to see tumors on a mammogram.
Family history of breast or ovarian cancer: Having a mother, sister, or daughter or multiple family members on either side who have had breast cancer increases risk.
Previous treatment using radiation therapy: Radiation therapy to the chest or breasts before age 30 creates a higher risk of getting breast cancer later in life.
On the other hand, noted risk factors we can control include:
Not being physically active.
Being overweight or obese after menopause.
Taking hormone replacement therapy.
Having the first pregnancy after age 30, not breastfeeding, and never having a full-term pregnancy.
Drinking alcohol in excess.
For both men and women, it’s pivotal that we understand the risk factors and are aware of common warning signs of breast cancer. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has outlined the most common signs for breast cancer as the following:
New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
Pain in any area of the breast.
Although being aware of these signs and symptoms is important, the most reliable diagnostic is to get screened. This is done through a mammogram. According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, women between the ages of 50 and 75 with an average risk of breast cancer should have a mammogram screening every two years; women below the ages of 40 to 49 should be screened at the recommendation of their doctors.
Overall, we need to understand our risk for breast and other cancers, be knowledgeable about the issue, and do our best to take care of our health and well-being. We can do so by maintaining annual health care visits and by staying on schedule with screenings. We know that a cure for this horrible disease is nowhere in sight. So, whatever we can to take care of ourselves, let’s make it a priority!
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