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Optimize Community Awareness Efforts During Breast Cancer Awareness Month

In 1985, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was created by the American Academy of Family Physicians, AstraZeneca Healthcare Foundation, CancerCare Inc., and other sponsors to raise awareness and promote funding for vitally needed research.

To say that the concept took off is a huge understatement. Soon there were pink ribbons appearing on lapels, and other charities were coming into existence to help women at every stage through diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. A welcome spotlight was shining on this widely occurring cancer that cuts short the lives of so many women. And every October, we are given the chance to talk about the issue once again. That’s key, because like so many other things that both providers and their patients can get used to, often a dialogue about the signs, symptoms and treatments for breast cancer can be overlooked.

A Continuing Healthcare Threat

For instance, despite major advances in treatments, breast cancer continues to be a widespread and elusive foe. And the biggest risks? Being a woman and getting older. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF):

  • About 1 in 8 U.S. women (some 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime.
  • In 2019, an estimated 268,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in American women, along with 62,930 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer.
  • An estimated 2,670 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in men in 2019. A man’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 1 in 883.
  • Some 41,760 women in the U.S. are expected to die in 2019 from breast cancer, though death rates have been decreasing since 1989.
  • Women under 50 have experienced larger decreases, possibly the result of treatment advances, earlier detection through screening alongside increased awareness.
  • Breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer, besides lung cancer, for women in the United States.
  • Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women. In 2019, it's estimated that about 30 percent of newly diagnosed cancers in women will be breast cancers.
  • As of January 2019, there are more than 3.1 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S. This includes women currently being treated and women who have finished treatment.

Those are some grim numbers, but there also are positives and they need to be celebrated. The NBCF also reports that Breast cancer incidence rates in the United States began decreasing in the year 2000 after a two-decade rise. They dropped by 7 percent from 2002 to 2003 alone, a reduction that may have been caused by the reduction in hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after the 2002 results of a large study, the Women’s Health Initiative, drew a connection between HRT and increased risk for breast cancer.

That shows women are paying attention. They also are following the latest science and requesting specific testing as a preventive measure. For instance, much has been written about genetic testing, and how genetic mutations play a role in someone’s heightened risk of breast cancer. About 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancers can be linked to gene mutations inherited from one’s mother or father.

Mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are the most common, and women with a BRCA1 mutation are thought to have up to a 72 percent  lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. The presence of the a BRCA2 mutation produces a risk factor  of 69 percent. Younger women tend to have breast cancer that is positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations, and both mutations have been associated with a higher risk of ovarian cancer.

Elevate Provider-Based Risk Awareness and Education

That kind of engagement shows that women are paying attention to news about breast cancer, and where better to get information about new studies, treatments and preventive methods that from their healthcare provider? It’s important to ensure that routine visits and annual checkups include such data sharing, when applicable, so that the most at-risk women can take steps to help reduce their risks.

That’s especially true for minorities. According to the NBCF, in women under 45, breast cancer is more common in African-American women than white women. And overall, African-American women are more likely to die of breast cancer. For Asian, Hispanic, and Native-American women, on the other hand, the risk of developing and dying from breast cancer is lower.

And then there’s the family issue. A woman’s risk of breast cancer nearly doubles if she has a first-degree relative—mother, sister, daughter—who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. At the same time, fewer than 15% of women who get breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with it.

So, during October, and year round, speak with women about the importance of breast cancer screening. If you’re a woman and are due, or overdue, a screening, don’t put it off. Women between 40 and 49 should have a mammogram, and women between 50 and 74 years old should have one every two years. It’s an easily scheduled, minimally invasive test that can, and does, save lives.

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