Many of us know October as pink ribbon month, thanks to the prominent “wear pink” campaigns featuring people from all walks of life, companies and pro sports teams. One of the most important reasons for Breast Cancer Awareness Month is to remind everyone that breast cancer continues to affect far too many women. Notes the Susan G. Komen Foundation: “Women in the U.S. have a 1 in 8 (or about 13 percent) lifetime risk of getting breast cancer. This means for every 8 women in the U.S., one will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime.”
Even though breast cancer affects women of all ages, the disease is most common among older women because it is a disease of aging. According to the American Cancer Society, half of newly diagnosed breast cancer cases come from women over 60 years old.
Men can also get breast cancer, however they account for only a few of the reported cases. Risk factors for male breast cancer include a family history of breast cancer or other genetic factors, exposure to radiation in the chest area, or having liver disease or another condition that causes estrogen levels to rise in the body. Among first responders and others still suffering from 9/11-related illnesses are a group of men diagnosed with breast cancer believed to be linked to the toxins from Ground Zero. Also, male breast cancer is most common in older men—most often diagnosed in men in their 60s or 70s, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is a disease where malignant (cancerous) cells form in the breast. Although these cancerous cells start by growing and invading healthy cells in the breast, they can eventually make their way to other areas of the body by entering blood vessels or lymph vessels. When this happens, and the cancer cells begin damaging other tissues the process is then called metastasis.
Breast cancer is not communicable. A person cannot get cancer by being exposed or interacting with someone with the disease. Another common myth: breast cancer is not caused by an injury to the breast. In addition, it is important to note that most women who develop breast cancer do not have any known risk factors or family history of the disease. A small percentage of breast cancer is believed to be inherited.
Risk Factors of Breast Cancer
The risk factors vary for the disease. While breast cancer does affect younger women, most cases of breast cancer occurs in women between the ages of 45 to 85. The risk of breast cancer in a woman age 70 is far greater than a woman at age 30. The risk for breast cancer is believed to decrease after age 85. However, no matter the age, women should be acutely aware of the risk factors and warning signs.
Among being older, here are some of the other most common risk factors:
- Personal and Family History
- High Estrogen Levels
- Never Being Pregnant (or having child in your mid-30s or later)
- Early Menstruation (before 12)
- Breast Density
- Exposure to Radiation
- Drinking Alcohol
- Race (Caucasian women are at higher risk)
- Inherited gene changes
Today, there are many ways to treat breast cancer. However, all treatments work best when the disease is detected early. When caught in its earliest stage, the survival rate is extremely high.
Warning Signs of Breast Cancer
When it comes to your health, never ignore any warning signs. In the early stages, breast cancer may not present any symptoms at all. However, as the cancer grows, it can cause noticeable changes in the breast. Women should watch for the following in the breast or underarm area:
- A Lump or Thickening Skin
- A Change in Size or Shape, a Dimple or Puckering in the Skin, an Inward Turned Nipple
- Unusual Fluid from the Nipple (especially if it is bloody)
For the best outcome, it is imperative for breast cancer to be diagnosed and treated as early as possible. Unfortunately, many women believe changes in the body are to be expected and simply due to aging. As a result, many illnesses, including breast cancer, go undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. The simple rule: Do not ignore any symptoms because you believe they are insignificant or “normal” for your age. If you experience any of the symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor and start asking questions.
Self-examination for Early Detection
Women of all ages are encouraged to conduct a monthly self-examination. To ensure full coverage, it is important to inspect the breast physically and visually from different angles and positions. Therefore, it is recommended to inspect the breast in the shower, in front of a mirror and laying down. Many cases of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump.
Check both breasts, feeling for lumps, thickening or hardened knots. Visually inspect the breasts for contour changes, swelling, dimpling of the skin or changes in the nipples. Set a reminder on your phone, mark your calendar, or get a buddy and remind each other. To keep it simple, pick the same date each month, such as the first day or last day of the month.
It is important to realize not all breast lumps are cancerous. Some are “benign,” and it is unlikely they will spread to other tissue. Despite this, they can still serve as a warning sign for an increased risk of breast cancer. Regardless, they should be examined by a specialist.
An annual mammogram is recommended for adult women, especially as they get older. A mammogram is a special x-ray that can detect breast cancer too small for you or a doctor to identify.
During the procedure, the breast is placed on a flat support plate and compressed with a parallel plate. A small burst of low-energy x-rays passes through the breast to a detector on the other side. The x-ray can identify uncharacteristic masses or micro-calcifications, which may indicate the early stages of breast cancer.
A regular mammogram is the best method to detect breast cancer early, sometimes years before symptoms can be seen or felt.
Free or low-cost screenings
For some women, getting screened can be costly because of a limited income. Many state and local health programs provide free or low-cost mammograms, so check with your local organizations or community groups.
Nonprofits like the National Breast Cancer Foundation and others provide free mammograms and diagnostic services for women in need at partner medical facilities.
In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides clinical breast exams and mammograms to low-income, uninsured women. For more information, call 1–800–232–4636.
The National Cancer Institute also offers free or low-cost mammography screening programs via local hospitals and community groups. For more information, call 1–800–422–6237.
As with all health issues or concerns, consult your physician. Take charge of your health, even though it can be daunting or scary. Without good health, you cannot be there for your children and grandchildren.
Winning Breast Cancer
October was deemed National Breast Cancer Awareness Month with the intention of not only educating people about the disease’s prevalence but also to recognize those who have been/are affected and to acknowledge the progress that has been made in efforts of making breast cancer a thing of the past.
The American Cancer Society estimates about 276,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women this year. Despite those numbers, it is important to acknowledge that according to the ACS: “At this time there are more than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. This includes women still being treated and those who have completed treatment.” By raising awareness, we can help create a world full of survivors by ensuring women win every time.
“Breast Cancer Most Common Among Older Women” was written by Nick Schaller and Bryan K. Chavez for Senior Directory, LLC, with additional information written by Michelle Flores, Amada blog contributor.