You might have noticed October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Professional football players are changing up their uniforms. Local fund-raising walks with ribbons are taking place on weekends. Salons are offering pink hair extensions for donations. Pink is everywhere. And while the emphasis is on raising funds for research, the evidence that early detection is key to survival keeps mounting.
Since 1990, more and more women have been surviving breast cancer, largely because of early detection through mammography and improvements in treatment.
According the American Cancer Society's Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2011-2012, an estimated 230,480 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2011. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, after skin cancer.
ACS reports breast cancer accounts for nearly 1 in 3 cancers diagnosed in women. In January 2008, the latest year for which statistics are available, about 2.6 million women living in the U.S. had a history of breast cancer. More than half of them were diagnosed less than 10 years earlier. Most of them were cancer-free, while others still had evidence of cancer and may have been undergoing treatment.
To find breast cancer early, when treatments are more likely to be successful, the ACS recommends women 40 and older have a mammogram and clinical breast exam every year, and younger women have clinical breast exams periodically as well.
What you can do
Early detection is one of your best defenses. Annual screenings, self-checks and knowing some of the symptoms can help you stay ahead of breast cancer or catch it early.
While the incidence of breast cancer is very low for women in their 20s, you should begin to do periodic self-exams. You'll become familiar with how your breasts look and feel and will be able to report a change to your doctor early. These exams should be done about a week after your period.
Clinical breast exams
For women in their 20s and 30s, these should be done by their healthcare professional at least every three years, and annually if you're 40 or older. This is also a good time to review your self-exam technique with your doctor.
Women 40 and older should have a mammogram every year. Mammograms are simple X-rays of the breast that reveal any abnormalities. It's estimated that regular mammograms can reduce breast cancer deaths by 30 percent. Find out more about screening and diagnostic tests for breast cancer.
In addition, don't forget to be on the lookout for these breast cancer warning signs:
- Your breast feels different – Most women describe a painless lump or thickening in the breast or underarm
- Your breast looks different – The breast may dimple or look like an orange peel
- You notice a change in the nipple – Changes, including fluid from the nipple, which may be clear or bloody
- Redness or scaling – If there's redness or scaling of the skin or nipple
If you think you have any of these symptoms, your doctor should evaluate you as soon as possible. Make sure to check regularly for any changes and take the time to arrange for the breast cancer screenings you need. It's worth the time to put yourself – and your health – first.