October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But before we talk about breast cancer and what it means for us in the year 2018, it’s important to take a quick look back to see just how far we’ve come.
- Over the past two decades, the death rate from cancer in the US has been declining.
- As of 2015, the breast cancer mortality rate has fallen almost 26% from its peak in 1991. That’s nearly 2.4 million deaths averted .
- The survival rates for breast cancer are the highest they’ve ever been, especially for women with metastatic breast cancer (breast cancer that has spread) .
- And for breast cancer survivors today, life is longer and better than it was for women who had it just a generation ago.
That’s all the good news. But there’s still more work to be done. Every year, approximately 237,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer and 41,000 will die from the disease .
The field of breast cancer research is constantly evolving and each new development gives women a better chance of prevention and survival. Here are some of the latest changes you should be aware of:
Breast-self-examinations: Where you stand
The guidance on breast self-examination and mammograms changes every few years as doctors gain better insight into the disease. The latest recommendations from The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) are as follows:
- Breast self-examination is no longer recommended . If you feel a lump in the breast tissue or notice any abnormal changes in your breasts or nipples (eg. pain, discharge, skin dimpling, tenderness), the first step is to make an appointment to see your doctor and they’ll be able to examine you properly.
- Women ages 50 to 74 years old and who are at average risk for breast cancer should have a mammogram every two years.
- Women ages 40 to 49 years old should speak to their doctor about when to start and how often to get a mammogram. You and your doctor can weigh the benefits and risks of screening tests and the best time for you to begin them. For example, if you have a history of breast cancer in your family or have the BRCA gene mutations (mentioned below), your screening may start earlier.
*Note: Different cancer organizations may have slightly different screening recommendations. Your doctor will be the best person to tell you what guidelines their clinic follows.
Breast cancer risk factors: What you can change and what you can’t
Alongside some of the more well-known risk factors of breast cancer, new research has highlighted a few additional ones. Your personal risk of breast cancer is due to a combination of these factors -those that are changeable and those that aren’t.
The risk factors you can’t change :
- Gender and age: These are the two main risk factors of breast cancer. The risk for breast cancer increases with age; most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50.
- Genetic mutations: Changes or mutations to the genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women who have inherited these genetic changes are at higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
- Reproductive history: Early menstrual periods before age 12 and starting menopause after age 55 expose women to hormones longer, raising their risk of getting breast cancer.
- Family history of breast cancer: A woman’s risk for breast cancer is higher if she has a mother, sister, or daughter (first-degree relative) or multiple family members on either her mother’s or father’s side of the family who have had breast cancer. Having a first-degree male relative with breast cancer also raises a woman’s risk.
- Previous treatment using radiation therapy: Women who had radiation therapy to the chest or breasts (like for treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma) before age 30 have a higher risk of getting breast cancer later in life.
Risk factors you can change – these are the ones you can take control of :
- Not being physically active. Women who are not physically active have a higher risk of getting breast cancer.
- Being overweight or obese after menopause. Older women who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of getting breast cancer than those at a normal weight.
- Taking hormones. Some forms of hormone replacement therapy (those that include both estrogen and progesterone) taken during menopause can raise risk for breast cancer when taken for more than five years.
- Drinking alcohol. Studies show that a woman’s risk for breast cancer increases with the more alcohol she drinks.
Being proactive about breast cancer
When it comes to breast cancer prevention, nothing is more effective than being proactive. That means:
- Knowing about the early detection tools of cancer like screening or mammograms
- Knowing the symptoms of breast cancer
- Paying attention to the risk factors that you can control –physical activity, alcohol intake
- Remembering where to get support services for things such as genetic counseling if you have a family history of breast cancer or are concerned that you have the BRCA genes
All of these things -knowledge, education and being proactive go a long way towards protecting yourself against breast cancer.
And because it’s breast cancer awareness month, pass on that knowledge to your female (and male) family and friends. Until the day we discover a cure for breast cancer, knowledge is still the best tool we have to fight it.
1) Center for Disease control. CDC.
2) American Cancer Society. Facts & Figures 2018: Rate of Deaths From Cancer Continues Decline. Jan 4, 2018
3) US Preventative Task Force. Screening for Breast Cancer – Questions and Answers.
4) Breastcancer. org. More Women Are Living With Metastatic Breast Cancer and Living Longer.