For the past 25 years, October has been designated “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month” to help draw attention to this vital health issue. That’s why you’re seeing pink so prominently displayed in our society, from pins on politician lapels to pink shoes on National Football League players.
Although we have made great strides in diagnosing and treating breast cancer, there is still considerable room for improvement. Breast cancer remains the most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in women in the United States. It is also seen in men, but at a much lower incidence.
By definition, breast cancer is a malignant tumor that grows in one or both of the breasts. It can develop in one of two areas: the ducts that move milk from the breasts to the nipples, or the lobules, which are also known as the milk-producing areas of the breast.
Its causes are divided into two categories: irreversible and reversible risk factors. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime, so it is important to know what increases your risk.
Irreversible causes include age greater than 50, female gender, family history of breast cancer, being a carrier of defective genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, early onset of menses (before age 12) or late onset of menopause (after age 55).
Reversible risk factors that put you at higher risk of breast cancer include consuming more than one to two alcoholic drinks per day and either never getting pregnant or doing so after age 30. Additional risks for women include diethylstilbestrol (DES) use to prevent miscarriage, hormone replacement therapy, obesity and radiation therapy to the upper body for treatment of a childhood or young adulthood cancer such as Hodgkin’s disease.
Prevention of breast cancer includes starting with a healthy diet and making a few lifestyle changes. Early detection is important as early-stage breast cancer can be easily treated and often cured. Some keys to early detection involve breast self-exams, clinical breast exams by a healthcare provider, and screening mammograms.
All women age 20 or older should perform monthly breast exams during the week following their menstrual period. A healthcare provider can demonstrate the proper technique. Women also should have a clinical breast exam every one to three years, depending on their risk factors.
Mammography is the most effective method of detecting breast cancer. All women over age 40 should have an annual mammogram. Women who have a family history of breast cancer should start getting mammograms annually beginning at age 35.
Contact your healthcare provider if you notice a lump in your breast or armpit, you are 40 or older, and it has been more than a year since your last mammogram. What better time to get that mammogram you’ve been putting off than this month?
Dr. Lucia L. Dattoma is a board-certified geriatrician with the UCLA Geriatrics Program, with offices in Santa Monica and Westwood. For more information, call 310. 319.4371.