National Breast Cancer Awareness Month
By: Grecia Romero
A pink ribbon is distinct. Its unique meaning strikes in a millisecond.
The well-known ribbon and its distinctive color has become the official symbol of commitment and awareness in the global fight against breast cancer in October. Organizations and people interested in the cause use it to represent hope for the future while honoring those who have suffered from the disease. The ribbon joins people from all backgrounds in solidarity with those who are currently suffering from it.
This color is not a fashion trend. It’s a visible form of awareness and education on prevention, early detection, and treatment of this disease.
Breast Cancer Does Not Discriminate
Breast cancer continues to be the most common type of cancer in women. About 1 in 8 women in the United States will be diagnosed with this cancer in her lifetime, and 1 in 39 will die from the disease. According to the 2021 Cancer Facts & Figures report published last month by the American Cancer Society, it is estimated that by December of this year, there will be 281,550 new cases, which represents 30% of all possible cancer diagnoses.
Breast cancer is not exclusive to women. Men can also suffer from the disease although at a lesser extent. The same report estimates that 2,650 new cases of men will be diagnosed this year with a risk of life of 1 in 1000 cases.
Mary Ann Orlang works as a clinical nurse specialist in genetics at the Regional Cancer Center in Florida. She helps patients with genetic cancer tests that might be inherited. Orlang said that cancer is a disease that does not distinguish between sex and age.
“We see a wide range of people with this condition on a daily basis. We serve very young women, in their twenties or thirties, as well as older women,” said Orlang. “We have also had male patients who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, although their risk is not as high as women.”
As Orlang said, learning how this type of cancer behaves plays a very important role in prevention and treatment.
“Awareness is important—especially with risk factors like family history of breast cancer or prostate cancer since prostate cancer is also associated with BRCA genes.”
Orlang also said that breast self-exam is highly recommended and should be started as early as 18 years of age for women with high-risk families. This allows the young woman to learn to distinguish what is normal for her and to recognize in time if there is something wrong. This is also true for men because, as Orlang points out, although the detection of breast cancer in men is much easier, it is common that the diagnosis comes as a result of a medical evaluation for the presence of lumps, secretions, or change in the appearance of the breasts.
Risk Factors: What Should You Know?
Breast cancer is not an infectious, bacterial, or transmissible disease like the human papilloma (HPV). Statistics from the American Cancer Society show that approximately 10% of all cases of this type of cancer are hereditary, an additional 10 to 30% have a close family member who also had cancer suggesting a familial link, and 60 to 80% are sporadic cases.
Although it is not possible to point to a direct and specific cause for its occurrence, several studies have verified the relationship of certain factors, some of them controllable, with the appearance of this disease.
The American Cancer Society lists all risk factors that increase the chances of getting the disease: the woman’s age (risks increase considerably after age 50), starting menstrual periods early, or having her first child at an advanced age, not having breastfed, a personal history of cancer, and direct family inheritance.
Potentially modifiable factors include obesity, physical inactivity, use of alcohol or tobacco, prolonged use of hormones, and excessive radiation exposure.
Prevention: What should be done?
Living a healthy lifestyle is the key to preventing cancer and multiple diseases. This requires different adjustments, but that will be undoubtedly of great benefit in the long term. According to the American Cancer Society, some preventive tips are:
- Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight and body fat levels are known to be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, especially after menopause when estrogen levels are often elevated.
- Have a balanced diet: The body needs nutrients from the different food groups. With the variety of food trends in vogue, it is common to exclude some foods such as protein, carbohydrates, and even fruits but this can be detrimental in the long term if the right supplements are not consumed. Whichever diet works for each person, a simple but useful recommendation is to avoid highly processed foods, reduce sugar, and artificial additives.
- Physical activity: Women who exercise regularly lower their chances of developing the disease by 10-20%. This could be due to due to the effects of physical activity on systemic inflammation, hormone levels, and energy balance. Incorporating a 30 min walk two or three times a week would be a good way to start.
- Limit the consumption of alcoholic beverages and tobacco: Numerous studies have confirmed that alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer. A woman who consumes 2 to 3 alcoholic drinks a day has a 20% greater risk than a woman who does not drink. Likewise, a woman who smokes has an 18% higher risk of suffering from this type of cancer than one who does not.
- Early detection screenings: Breast cancer is curable if diagnosed early. The American Cancer Society recommends early screenings based on a woman’s age and different risk factors. Starting with the annual check-up and breast self-exam to detect any abnormalities in time. After age 40, annual mammograms, and even include more specific tests such as resonance imaging or genetic testing for hereditary cancer in case of family history. Some women do not have annual mammograms because they do not have health insurance or money to pay for it, but there are several organizations nationwide that provide these services for free. Specifically in Miami-Dade County, the “Green Family Foundation – NeighborhoodHELP” through FIU offers free mammograms to uninsured women over 40 years of age. https://mammography.fiu.edu/visit.html
- Physician evaluation: Breast cancer usually has no symptoms if the tumor is small and easily treatable. That is why screening is so important. A physician evaluation will be necessary if any change in the breast is noticed: pain, swelling, thickening, redness, or discharges.
Awareness Breast Cancer Month: Where Do We Start?
The keyword of October is action!
There are several things that can be done to fight this disease and really make an impact on the lives of those who suffer from it.
- Educate yourself on the subject: It is difficult to support something that is not known, so it is necessary to take the time to understand how the disease works, not from the position of fear but of prevention. Breast cancer is no longer a taboo subject, it is a reality.
- Participate in events throughout the month: Informational talks, survivor testimonies, vigils, sporting events.
- Support those who suffer from the disease or their families: Cancer is a very burdensome disease, not only because of the effects of treatment but also because of the fear of the worst. Patients and families need solidarity, support, empathy, and practical help in daily tasks. One way to raise awareness is to become actively involved and support those with cancer.
- Individual action: learn to perform a proper breast self-exam, review risk factors and create a specific action plan to strengthen prevention, and even make an appointment for the next mammogram or annual check-up with the physician if haven done so.
- Spread the word- Invite other women to learn about the subject: Knowledge is power and the youngest the woman is to learn about prevention, the greater the benefit. No one ever knows when this knowledge can save a life!