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ARTICLE October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Fighting Breast Cancer – What You Can Do

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

By Jacqueline Stiff, M.D., MSPH
UnitedHealthcare vice president, Health Care Strategies

When it comes to breast cancer, spreading the word means spreading the cure so talk with your loved ones this month about the importance of breast cancer screenings and the risk factors associated with the disease.

Despite progress in the fight against the disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year more than 200,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that about one in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in their lives.

The chance of breast cancer increases with age. A woman in her 70s is twice as likely to have breast cancer than a woman in her 40s. But incidence numbers tell only half of the story.

Equally important are rates of survival. Due in part to public awareness campaigns, more women are beating breast cancer by taking charge of their own breast health. According to the American Cancer Society, about 67 percent of women aged 40 and older in the United States had a mammogram in the past two years, compared to only 29 percent in 1987. Today, the five-year survival rate of women who are diagnosed early is more than 90 percent, and the primary reason is early detection.

Risk Factors

Although no one knows yet how to prevent breast cancer, certain risk factors have been linked to the disease. They include:

  • Age: the chance of getting breast cancer increases as a woman gets older
  • Family History: having a mother, sister or daughter who has had breast cancer
  • Long-term usage of hormones (HRT); oral contraceptive agents
  • Longer time menstruating: women who started menstruating before age 12 or continued after age 55 are at greater risk
  • Having no children or had their first child after age 30
  • Personal history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer
  • Lack of breast feeding
  • Genetic conditions (e.g., BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genes), but this only applies to about 1 percent of women with breast cancer

Screening is Key

Screening is key for early detection. Different organizations have different recommendations for screening, so women should talk to their doctors about their risk to determine the right age to begin breast cancer screenings. "High-risk" women may need mammograms at an earlier age or more often than "average-risk" women.

Mammograms are not foolproof. They can be normal when breast cancer is present, so women should see their doctor right away if they find any change in their breasts, such as a lump or nipple discharge that is not breast milk.

In addition to screening, it is a good idea to incorporate a healthy lifestyle to reduce the risk of breast cancer. This includes limiting alcohol, controlling weight by eating less fat and more fruits, whole grains and vegetables, and exercising.

African-American Women at Risk

Screening is important for all women, especially for African Americans. According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among African-American women with an estimated 27,000 new cases this year.

Although at lower risk of actually developing breast cancer than Caucasian women, African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer. The American Cancer Society states that part of the reason is that African-American women have faster-growing tumors so the cancer spreads more quickly, which makes screening tests even more important. Hispanic, Asian and Native-American women have a lower risk of getting and dying from breast cancer.

Spread the Word

Recognizing October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a good reminder for everyone to create awareness about the importance of breast cancer screenings and for women to talk with their doctors about breast health. By spreading the word, you can help efforts to reduce the number of diagnoses and deaths from breast cancer.