Breast Cancer Awareness Month—6 Things You Didn’t Know

With an estimated 246,600 women in the United States to be diagnosed with breast cancer this year alone, and with more than 2.8 million women in the United States with a history of breast cancer, the need for October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month is clear. These 31 days of fundraising and discussion about breast cancer are crucial in gathering the resources and the awareness needed to improve the early detection and treatment of breast cancer. When it comes to fighting breast cancer, knowledge is power. That is why learning as much as you can about this illness is so important. Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an opportunity to gain new information about every aspect of breast cancer and to contribute toward continued research and treatment development for this disease. Here are a few things relating to breast cancer that you may not have been aware of.

Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death among women.

Women of every ethnicity are far more likely to die from breast cancer than they are from other causes such as stroke, diabetes, other types of cancer, and even accidents. This means that more than 21 percent of all of women’s deaths, more than 40,000 deaths every year, are due to breast cancer. By regularly screening for breast cancer, raising money to fund cutting edge treatments, conducting research and providing survivors ways to recover their bodies afterward (through procedures such as breast reconstruction surgery), women can often live longer, healthier lives.

Women with no family history of breast cancer are still at risk.

Family history is a well-known risk factor for breast cancer. However, it is neither the only nor even the most important one. Instead, up to 85 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no other family members with the disease. This means that the large majority of breast cancer occurrences are unrelated to family history. Instead, the two biggest risk factors for breast cancer are age and gender (being a woman). The older you are, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer. In addition, there are a number of lifestyle factors that can increase your risk of getting breast cancer. It may be tempting to ignore regular screenings or the warning signs of breast cancer because you have no family history of the disease. However, by recognizing these other risk factors and by taking steps to detect breast cancer early, you may very well save your life.

You can make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of getting breast cancer.

While age and gender are the biggest risk factors for breast cancer, there are also lifestyle factors that can increase or decrease your chances of developing breast cancer. For example, drinking alcohol, especially in excess, increases your chances of developing breast cancer (and other cancers). Obesity after menopause also increases the risk of breast cancer, while certain hormone therapies have been linked to greater incidences of breast cancer. Thankfully, however, there are lifestyle changes you can make to reduce the risk of getting breast cancer. For example, by controlling the amount of alcohol you drink, working with your doctor to achieve a healthy weight, and avoiding hormone therapies that have been linked to breast cancer, you can lower your chances of developing breast cancer. In addition, regular exercise (as little as a couple of hours a week) can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer by up to 18 percent.

Early detection and treatment are the best ways to prevent death from breast cancer.

While you cannot completely eliminate your risk of developing breast cancer, there are a few easy steps you can take to detect it early and treat it before it becomes life threatening. In fact, when localized breast cancer (cancer that has not yet spread anywhere else) is detected early, the 5-year survival rate is 99 percent. There are two ways to detect breast cancer early. The first is to conduct monthly breast self-exams. By feeling the soft tissue of your breast, you can more quickly identify lumps that may be breast cancer. By following up with you doctor regarding any concerning masses, you increase your chances of finding any breast cancer early so it can be treated before it spreads. Second, you should have annual mammograms, usually beginning at age 40 (although you may get them earlier if you have a family history of breast cancer). Mammograms can catch breast cancer in its earliest stages, allowing you to get treated sooner than if you had waited until you found the lump yourself.

Many women are living with breast cancer.

Often, people unintentionally divide breast cancer patients into two groups: Those who have breast cancer and those who are in remission. What they do not realize is that there is a whole group of people who are living with an incurable form of breast cancer. Called metastatic breast cancer, this is cancer that has spread from the breasts to other parts of the body (such as the bones or other organs). About 5 percent of women have this type of breast cancer when they are diagnosed, while more eventually develop it after an initial diagnosis of less advanced breast cancer. While there is no cure for metastatic breast cancer, many women live years with the disease. About 37 percent of women with metastatic breast cancer live longer than 3 years. Some women live more than 10 years. Common treatments for metastatic breast cancer include chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy (which prevents the cancer from feeding off of the woman’s hormones). A newer form of treatment for metastatic breast cancer is biologic targeted therapy. This therapy can be used on women with certain types of breast cancer to slow the growth of or to destroy the cancerous cells. Women with metastatic breast cancer undergo constant treatment in order to keep the disease at bay.  For these women, continued research into treatments for their disease are critical in helping them to live longer, higher quality lives.

Treatment and awareness are making a difference.

Often, the numbers surrounding breast cancer sound scary. Fortunately, awareness and fundraising such as that which takes place around Breast Cancer Awareness Month, are making a difference. Since 2000, breast cancer occurrences have been steadily decreasing. Experts credit this trend to the decreased use of hormone treatments during menopause after being linked to breast cancer. Perhaps even more importantly, the number of deaths from breast cancer has also been decreasing, especially in younger women. Experts credit this improvement to the increased awareness of the importance of early detection and treatment of breast cancer. Thanks to efforts such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, more women are taking steps (such as self-examination and mammograms) to identify breast cancer early.

Research and cures are needed in addition to awareness.

It can be tempting to focus just on raising awareness about breast cancer. While, as mentioned above, awareness is saving lives by catching breast cancer earlier, it is not enough to help the many patients already suffering from metastatic breast cancer. In addition to awareness, there must be a stronger focus on research and the development of treatments for breast cancer. These efforts can make the difference between life and death for breast cancer patients. As a result, take the time to think about how you are spending your efforts during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Consider taking part in activities that not only contribute to more awareness but also contribute to fostering the research and treatment development that can save and lengthen the lives of women who are suffering from breast cancer. Organizations such as METAvivor allocate 100% of funds raised to research grants.

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There is hope after breast cancer.

Millions of women have survived breast cancer, and early stage survival rates continue to increase. Plus, there are many ways to get your body back after breast cancer treatment. After mastectomies, many women select breast reconstruction surgery (such as DIEP flap surgery) to return their bodies to their shapes and sizes prior to breast cancer. With the help of a skilled plastic surgeon like Dr. Potter, you can retain the self-confidence you felt before your diagnosis. While breast cancer can feel overwhelming, understanding the disease, can enable you to take steps to prevent, detect, treat, and recover from it.