by Barbara Grassley
October brings to mind the colors of autumn, the black and orange of Halloween, and pink, the color of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It is a time to reflect on strides made in breast cancer prevention and chart a course for the future.
The realm of breast cancer is far different from what it was in 1985, when October officially became Breast Cancer Awareness Month. What once was a silent killer is now a widely talked about, often highly treatable disease. Breast Cancer Awareness month has helped us overcome much of the stigma once associated with breast cancer, and women are now encouraged and are lauded for sharing their breast cancer stories. As a result, many more women in America today have heard messages emphasizing the importance of early detection and screening and know they should schedule their first mammogram by age 40. We know the mortality rate from breast cancer has decreased over the past two decades, and we know there are more treatment options than ever. What we seem to have forgotten, however, is that breast cancer is still the second leading cause of cancer deaths in American women.
Today there exists an alarming thought that breast cancer is simply not as big a concern as it once was, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is estimated 226,870 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012; in Iowa alone, it is estimated 2,350 women will be told they have breast cancer, and 400 women will die from the disease. These are still huge numbers, so it is critically important the American public does not become complacent about breast health.
There are many proactive measures women can take toward detecting breast cancer, including:
Breast Self-Exam: Every woman should perform a monthly examination of her breasts to check for physical changes. If you are unsure of how to perform a breast self-exam, ask your health care provider to demonstrate and explain the ideal time to conduct one. It is very important for women to become familiar with their breasts and understand what feels normal. Start early, beginning at age 20.
Clinical Breast Exam: Be sure to ask your health care provider to give you a clinical breast exam each year. The exam consists of checking the breasts for any changes, lumps, or other possible warning signs of breast cancer through physical touch and appearance. You should begin having clinical breast exams in your 20s and 30s.
Mammography: By the age of 40, all women should have a mammogram, and it is important to talk to your health care provider about how often the test should be performed. The mammogram is an “x-ray” of the breast and, at this time, is the most effective method of detecting breast changes that may be cancer, long before physical symptoms can be seen or felt.
While every man and woman is at risk for breast cancer, some are at higher risk. Risk factors include a family history of breast cancer, inherited abnormal genes, a previous diagnosis of cancer in one breast, a sedentary lifestyle, and age – women over 50 are more likely to develop breast cancer. Like all cancers, risk for breast cancer can be reduced by leading a healthy lifestyle, which includes exercise and not smoking. New drugs have been developed to help prevent breast cancer in high risk patients, so if you believe you are at a higher risk for breast cancer, please talk to your health care provider.
In the paragraph above, you will notice it says, “every man and woman is at risk ...”. Yes, men can get breast cancer. too. While breast cancer risk for women is calculated by state, the same information for men is available only for the United States as a whole. In 2012, the estimate is 2,190 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and there will be 410 deaths.
Survival rates for breast cancer are higher now than they were ten years ago in large part because women are getting tested and catching it early. Please follow the above guidelines and encourage friends and family to do the same. A cancer diagnosis affects not only the patient and her immediate family, but also their entire community of friends, schoolmates, neighbors, colleagues, and service providers. Protect your health this and every month, if not for yourself, then for the people who love you.
If you would like additional information on cancer prevention, please visit www.preventcancer.org.
Barbara Grassley, a breast cancer survivor, is a member of the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention program of the Prevent Cancer Foundation and the spouse of U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.