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Breast Cancer Awareness: Early Detection Can Save Your Life

October 29, 2009

By Laura Frutiger

This October marks the 25th annual National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer remains one of the foremost women’s health issues; women are diagnosed with this type of cancer with a frequency second only to skin cancer. Every year 200,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with the disease and more than 40,000 die [1]. As the cold weather sets in and we all prepare for the coming winter, it is important to remember to take time to inform yourself about this health issue. It may save your life or the life of a loved one.

Breast cancer is a malignant tumor that develops in the breasts, usually in the ducts or lobules (the “milk-producing areas”). There are several types of breast cancer with differing levels of severity and rates of occurrence [2].  

Patterns of breast cancer vary by ethnic group. The occurrence of breast cancer is highest for white women. Black women, who also experience high rates of breast cancer, suffer from the highest mortality rate associated with the disease. Reported breast cancer rates are lowest for Native American/ Alaska Native women. However, the American Cancer Society cautions, “Cancer incidence among the American Indian population have been monitored more systematically in the Southwest than in other geographic regions and may not reflect the cancer experience of American Indians or Alaska Natives residing elsewhere.”[3] Native women living in the northern states experience rates of cancer equal to that of white women. Furthermore, breast cancer rates for Native women may be underreported due to misclassification of health statistics, as well as the unequal access and quality of health-care available to them. Late detection of breast cancer among Native women, largely due to the lack of appropriate health-care, contributes to a poor survival rate from the disease [4].

In addition to race, there are several lifestyle and personal history factors associated with an increased risk for breast cancer. A history of breast cancer in a first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter etc.) is an important warning sign. You may also be at an increased risk for breast cancer if you:

  • Are over 65
  • Are obese or overweight
  • Eat a diet high in saturated fat
  • Do not partake in physical activity
  • Experienced early menstruation or late menopause
  • Have not given birth or had your first child at an older age.
  • Took birth control pills for more than 10 years before your 35th birthday.
  • Have had past radiation therapy to the breast area
  • Have a history of hormone treatments [5]

However, regardless of your age, ethnic heritage, family background, or lifestyle, it is important to get the facts about breast cancer. Many women diagnosed with the disease have no known risk factors besides age [6]. If you are a woman, you are at risk for breast cancer.

The good news is that due to increased awareness of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, diagnosis of the disease frequently occurs at earlier stages. Early detection of breast cancer is vital to effective treatment. In addition to speaking with a health care professional about breast cancer, the National Breast Cancer Foundation recommends the following early detection plan [5]:
  • Beginning at age 20—perform monthly breast self-exams. Note any signs of change (including nipple tenderness, lumps in the breast, changes in the physical appearance of the breast or nipple, and/or nipple discharge)
  • Age 20-39—schedule a clinical breast exam every three years
  • Age 40—have a baseline mammogram and annual clinical breast exams
  • Age 40-49—depending on previous findings, have a mammogram every one to two years
  • Age 50+ —have a mammogram every year

You may also decrease your risk of breast cancer by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Exercise and a low-fat, nutritious diet have numerous health benefits, including reducing the risk of breast cancer.

Remember that early detection can save your life. So when it comes to your health, stay informed and stay vigilant.

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2009. Breast Cancer Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/statistics/
[2] National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. 2009. Disease Information: Breast Cancer. Retrieved from http://www.nbcam.org/disease_breast_cancer.cfm
[3] Breast Cancer Fund. 2008. Breast Cancer Incidence and Mortality by Race and Ethnicity. Retrieved from http://www.breastcancerfund.org/site/c.kwKXLdPaE/b.84427/k.B18F/Demographics_of_Breast_Cancer.htm
[4] Breast Cancer Resource Directory of North Carolina. 2006. Multicultural Issues and Resources: Native American Women. Retrieved from http://bcresourcedirectory.org/directory/05-native_american.htm
[5] National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. 2002. Retrieved from http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/default.aspx
[6] American Cancer Society. 2009. What Are the Risk Factors For Breast Cancer? Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_4_2X_What_are_the_risk_factors_for_breast_cancer_5.asp

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