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Breast Cancer: Early Detection Saves Lives

Beautiful senior adult African American woman is smiling while running in race to benefit the cure for breast cancer. She is wearing pink athletic clothing and a pink ribbon. Teammates are running behind her.

Did you know that Breast Cancer Awareness Month was first observed in the United States in October 1985? This is an international campaign that seeks to raise awareness of the disease and raise money to fund research into cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and cure.

The ongoing focus and message is to encourage women to have mammograms, which are x-rays used to detect abnormalities in the breast tissue. Early detection means that cancer, if detected, can be treated and the risk of spreading to other areas of the body can be lowered.

Click on the image above to learn what you need to know about breast cancer

Though many women are fortunate to not have had breast cancer, most people know someone who has had the disease. Women in the United States have a one in eight (about 12 percent) lifetime risk of getting breast cancer. While deaths have declined due to early detection, breast cancer remains the second-leading cause of cancer death among women and the leading cause of cancer deaths among Hispanic women. Some women are fortunate due to early detection to have minimally invasive surgery (lumpectomies) while others undergo the removal of one and sometimes both breasts.

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 266,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year. A large percentage of cases are hormone-dependent and estrogen receptor positive—which means they respond to hormone therapy, which is good.

It’s important to know that women and men who inherit abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes (BR stands for Breast and CA stands for Cancer) have a higher risk of breast cancer. The BRCA test has been around for about a decade. Women with harmful BRCA mutations have a risk of breast cancer about five times the normal risk, and risk of ovarian cancer about 10 to 30 times normal. According to the National Cancer Institute, 55 percent to 65 percent of women with a known cancer-causing BRCA1 mutation will develop breast cancer by age 70.

Good news—genetic testing is improving. A new University of Washington study published in the September 2018 issue of Nature, a scientific journal, found that BRCA mutations are among dozens of genetic mutations that raise the risk of breast or ovarian cancer. New methods allow faster and more accurate results.

What can you do?

  • Talk with your health care provider: Be sure to ask your health care provider whether you should be tested for common BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations.
  • Risk factors: Your health care provider will want to know your family history of cancer. For women, providers will want to know when your menstrual cycles began and when you entered menopause. Alcohol use and being overweight also contribute to your cancer risk.
  • Don’t ignore changes in your body: Check your breasts for lumps, discolorations, and changes in appearance at least monthly. Talk with your health care provider if you notice a change.
  • Mammograms: Follow your health care provider’s advice, even if it’s inconvenient, bothersome, or unpleasant. Make and keep your mammogram appointment. For uninsured or low-income women, free or low-cost mammogram services are available. Call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 to find a program near you.
  • Nutrition: Eat a healthy diet.
  • Maintain a positive outlook: Our minds play an important role in our health and wellness. If you need treatment, talk with your health care team about everything having to do with breast health and overall wellness. They are there to support you in every way.

Actress Angelina Jolie, who opted to have both breasts surgically removed because she has a mutation in BRCA1 and subsequently had both ovaries removed, reported that three women in her family had died from cancer.

“We have a choice about how we take what happens to us in our life and whether or not we allow it to turn us. We can become consumed by hate and darkness, or we’re able to regain our humanity somehow, or come to terms with things and learn something about ourselves,” Jolie said. Her experience has helped others understand the importance of mammograms for early detection and treatment.


Contributor Mary Pat O’Leary, RN, BSN is a planner at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County.

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