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Doctor’s Orders: Breast Cancer Awareness is more than a ribbon

By Melinda Barber - | Oct 23, 2021


Jenn Haskins, of Brookline, walks with her mother, Donna Antis, who has been fighting breast cancer since being diagnosed in April, during the "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk," a 5K walk hosted by the American Cancer Society to raise money for breast cancer research and education and patient support, at the South Shore Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. Haskins said that despite her mother being in pain, it was important to both of them to participate. "It has been downhill, but every day she comes back and she fights," said Haskins. "She's my hero; she's shown me what it's like to be a fighter. This walk means everything to me, for her," she said. (Alexandra Wimley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Have you noticed pink ribbons appearing around the community lately? October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and that little pink ribbon is a symbol designed to bring awareness of breast cancer and show support for those who are currently battling or have battled breast cancer. I wanted to take the opportunity this month to focus on basics of breast cancer and the importance of early detection.

Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in the United States. Twelve percent, or roughly 1 in 8 women, will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime. Breast cancer is not just a women’s disease, however. Men get it too. Although this type of cancer is rarer in men (1 in 883 men), it is has a higher fatality rate because it is often not detected until it has progressed into the later stages.

Research into breast cancer has found different factors that contribute to the development of the disease. One major risk factor is genetics. For example, if a woman has a first-degree female relative that has had breast cancer — such as a sister, mother, or daughter — her risk of developing breast cancer is doubled. In addition to genetics, other significant risk factors for breast cancer are gender (being female) and age. As women grow older, their likelihood of developing breast cancer increases steadily. For every 3 cases of invasive breast cancer, 2 of these cases are found in women 55 or older.

Unfortunately, we cannot change our age or our genetics. The good news is, however, that there are protective steps that individuals can take to help keep the risk of developing breast cancer (and other types of cancers) low, including:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight for your age, height, body type, and activity level
  • Reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption
  • Getting enough physical activity (at least 150 minutes per week for adults)
  • Avoiding smoking and using other tobacco products
  • Maintaining a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits, veggies, and limiting refined sugars and processed foods
  • Reducing exposure to harmful chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) (found in plastics), phosphorus (found in lawn and gardening products), parabens and phthalates (found in cosmetics), and pesticides and antibiotics (found in food).

In addition to the above list, it’s important to perform regular self-exams and participate in routine breast cancer screenings. A mammogram which is an x-ray photograph of the breast, is one of the most important tools doctors have not only to screen for breast cancer, but to diagnose, evaluate, and follow those who have previously had breast cancer. Mammograms are recommended annually for women beginning at age 40.

Breast self-exams (BSE) are also recommended to help detect cancer early on. These exams can be performed by any gender at any age. BSEs are convenient; because you conduct your own exam, they can be done on your own time, in your own home, as often as you choose (at least monthly), and they’re free!

When conducting a BSE, individuals should make note of any changes in size, shape, and color of the skin and nipple. If there are any unusual changes, such as discharge or fluid present, redness, soreness, rash, or swelling, be sure to check with your doctor. After checking appearance, the next step is to feel for lumps and tenderness. It’s important to check the entire breast — top to bottom, side to side, from the collarbone to the top of the abdomen and from the armpit to the center of the chest. This can be done sitting, standing and even in the shower.

What should you do if you find a lump or notice a change in appearance? Don’t panic. Most women have lumps in their breasts all the time, and often lumps turn out to be noncancerous. Some lumps are due to changes in hormones, which is why it is recommended for women to conduct BSEs after their menstrual cycle. If a lump or change in the breast is new or worrisome, schedule an appointment with your doctor for further evaluation. Early detection is key!

Although breast health may not be the most comfortable topic to discuss, especially at the dinner table, knowledge is power! Knowing risk factors, warning signs, and how to detect breast cancer early on may just save your life or the life of a loved one. Over the last two decades, we have seen a decrease in rates of breast cancer in the US. This is in part due to more awareness and education. Let’s show our support to those who have battled or are currently battling breast cancer by passing along this information, participating in cancer screenings, conducting self-exams, learning more about this disease, and encouraging others to do the same.


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