October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, 31 days dedicated to increasing public knowledge about breast cancer prevention, detection and treatment. A lot of progress has been made since the annual campaign began in 1985. Mammography rates have more than doubled for women age 50 and older, which has led to a large decrease in breast cancer deaths.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the leading cause of death in Hispanic women and the second most common cause of cancer death in White, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native women.
The best way to fight breast cancer is to have a plan that helps detect the disease in its early stages. The National Cancer Institute reports that when breast cancer is detected early, in the localized stage, the five-year survival rate is 98 percent.
Early detection may involve the discovery of a new lump or a change in the breast tissue or skin. Women should perform a self breast exam monthly. Any changes or abnormalities should be discussed with a doctor. Johns Hopkins Medical Center reports that breast self exams are critical because 40 percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump.
In addition, mammograms frequently reveal breast lumps before they can be felt and therefore should be a part of every woman’s protection plan. They also can show other irregularities such as calcium clusters, fatty cells or other conditions such as cysts. If abnormalities are detected other tests are needed to find out the cause.
The National Breast Cancer Foundation, which says even women with no symptoms and no known risks for breast cancer should have regular mammograms and recommends the following for all women:
• Women 40 and older should have mammograms every one or two years.
•Women who are younger than 40 and have risk factors for breast cancer should ask their healthcare professional if mammograms are advisable and how often to have them.
Mammography screenings have increased among most groups except American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Women age 65 and older are often less likely to get mammograms than younger women, even though breast cancer risk increases with age. And, women below the poverty level are less likely than women who have higher incomes to have had a mammogram in the last two years.
The goal of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is to save lives through early detection. Your doctor can help you decide when and how often to get a mammogram. It is urgent that you have this discussion with your doctor, especially if breast or ovarian cancer runs in your family.
For more information about Breast Cancer Awareness visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation website at www.nationalbreastcancer.org.
Larry Jones, MPH, is the director of the Independence Health Department.