4 Things to Remember During Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and efforts are underway all around the country to encourage discussion, education, and fundraising regarding this disease. The increase in awareness has translated into a declining mortality rate for breast cancer (at a rate of almost 2 percent per year), as well as a decline in the number of new diagnoses of breast cancer. However, awareness is not the only weapon needed to combat breast cancer, and misconceptions about breast cancer still exist. As you consider ways to engage with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, support friends and family who may be suffering from the disease, and educate yourself about breast cancer, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Awareness may not be enough.

Awareness is a critical element in enabling people to protect themselves against breast cancer. And, as mentioned above, it is working by encouraging women to take the steps necessary to both prevent breast cancer and to detect it early when it does occur. However, awareness is only one weapon in the fight against breast cancer. More is needed in order to provide meaningful support and treatment for women who are suffering from this disease. In particular, more efforts are needed in the fields of research and treatment development. These areas have been making strides in identifying the causes of breast cancer and in finding increasingly effective treatments for this disease. For example, research into the genetic contributors to breast cancer now allow some women to identify their risk of contracting breast cancer and has given rise to a targeted therapy that specifically treats genetically-based breast cancer. If we can go beyond awareness to engaging in efforts that foster research and treatment development, we can contribute toward further advances that can literally save women’s lives after they are diagnosed with breast cancer.

Metastatic breast cancer is sometimes overlooked.

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, you will likely hear stories of survivors who “beat their disease.” These uplifting and sometimes miraculous stories give people hope. They also underscore the very real difference being made by awareness raising, research, and treatment development. Plus, with more and more people overcoming breast cancer (with a 5-year survival rate of 99 percent for some types of localized breast cancer), it is important to recognize the victories being won against this disease. However, it can be easy to overlook the many who are courageously living with breast cancer, often for years after their initial diagnoses. In particular, women with metastatic breast cancer face an incurable disease that requires constant treatment. An estimated 5 percent of new breast cancer diagnoses are of metastatic breast cancer. Other women will develop this type of breast cancer after being diagnosed with a less advanced stage of the disease (some experts estimate between 20 and 30 percent of breast cancer cases will become metastatic). As a result, when you are engaging in awareness and fundraising efforts for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is important to remember that not every story involves a complete cure. Efforts during October need to include efforts to support those living with metastatic breast cancer and efforts to advance research and treatments that can extend lives. Resources such as METAvivor can help you to identify ways to support metastatic breast cancer patients and help you to better understand what they are experiencing.

Some Breast Cancer Awareness Month initiatives are flawed.

You may have heard the term, “Think before you pink.” This phrase was coined by the nonprofit organization, Breast Cancer Action, in an effort to help people think more carefully about the efforts they support during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The month is extremely popular, and numerous businesses use this time as an opportunity to boost sales by adding pink ribbons to their products. However, not all of these efforts are equally effective. Companies that use cancer-causing chemicals in their products, or who engage in environmentally dangerous practices, still often participate in Breast Cancer Awareness Month initiatives. This is an activity that has been termed “pinkwashing.” Supporting their efforts by buying their pink-ribboned products will do little in the face of these companies’ poor practices. In addition, it can be difficult to identify where your money is going when you purchase some pink-ribboned products. You might not know how much of your money is spent on fighting breast cancer, and you might not know where that money is being spent. If you do not know how your money will be used in the fight against cancer, you may want to redirect your support to organizations and initiatives that can clearly account for the allocation of your money. By doing your research and choosing your participation wisely, you can maximize the positive impact your efforts make in the fight against breast cancer.

Breast cancer can happen to anyone.

Often, women believe that they are not at risk for breast cancer, either because they are young or because they do not have a family history of the disease. This assumption can sometimes cause them to ignore symptoms of breast cancer or to forego preventative measures that they should be taking. For example, a woman in her 20s may ignore a lump in her breast or choose not to do breast self-exams because she believes that she is not at risk for developing breast cancer. The truth, however, is that breast cancer strikes both younger and older women alike. And, about 85 percent of breast cancer cases occur in women who have no family history of the disease. These facts mean that all women must be aware that they could develop breast cancer and should take the preventative measures appropriate to their age in order to detect it and treat it early should it occur. These facts do not mean, however, that every woman needs an annual mammogram. The current recommendation from the American Cancer Society is that women begin annual mammograms at the age of 45. If you are younger than 45, you may only need a regular mammogram if directed by your doctor (usually because you are at a higher risk than others your age for getting breast cancer). Your doctor should be able to advise you on when the best time is for you to begin receiving mammograms. If you are younger than 45, regular breast self-exams, knowing your risk factors, and being aware of the signs of breast cancer can help you seek medical care.  By taking the proper steps to detect breast cancer, no matter your age, you are more likely to identify an occurrence of breast cancer before it becomes life threatening.

Everyone can make a difference.

When it comes to fighting breast cancer, everyone can make a difference. Your thoughtful participation and donations during this month, no matter how small, can help to direct resources toward supporting and lengthening the lives of those who suffer from breast cancer. And, these efforts are having an effect. From breast reconstruction (such as DIEP flap surgery) after a mastectomy to new advances in pinpointing the causes and best treatments for breast cancer, to longer survival rates for breast cancer patients, to lower incidences of breast cancer, progress is being made. If you wish to have a positive impact yourself during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, consider joining efforts in your community that help to further education, research development, and treatment development. In addition, remember that awareness may not be enough, and include metastatic breast cancer in your efforts, avoid flawed initiatives, and take courage from the fact that you can help to make a difference, too, in the fight against breast cancer.