October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the United States, and while many people are busy raising money for research and wearing pink, we can’t forget to consider our own risks for breast cancer, especially since early detection and treatment are the biggest predictors of survival!
For all we hear about breast cancer and its devastating implications, many people still don’t know who it affects or how to prevent it. If you’re feeling lost, don’t worry — consider this your crash course in breast cancer risk and prevention. There’s no better time than the present to get informed.
Here are four important things you need to know about breast cancer.
1. Breast Cancer Affects People of All Genders
One of the biggest myths surrounding breast cancer is that the disease only affects women. It is true that women are at a much higher risk of breast cancer — about one in eight U.S. women will develop breast cancer during their lifetimes — but breast cancer can affect anyone, including men.
Men have around a one in 1,000 chance of developing breast cancer. In 2018, that translates to about 2,550 new diagnoses in the U.S. Though these numbers seem small, they’re not insignificant. Radiation exposure, hormone levels and genetics can all increase risk for breast cancer in men. Because breast cancer can develop even in a small amount of breast tissue, lumps and abnormalities should always be reported to a doctor.
In order to prevent breast cancer, all people should know their risk level and take precautions, regardless of gender.
2. It’s Not Just a Family Disease
Many people believe breast cancer only affects those with a family history of the disease. However, 85 percent of people diagnosed are women with no family history of breast cancer.
Some family links can increase your chance for breast cancer. For example, mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes both significantly increase the likelihood of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Anyone is susceptible, though. Aging poses a significant risk, regardless of genetic makeup.
People at high risk of breast cancer due to a family link should be especially cautious, getting genetic testing and MRIs in addition to mammograms. However, all women should receive preventive screening for breast cancer as they age, even if they have no family history of the disease.
3. Screening Is Essential
Early detection of breast cancer is the best way to help stop the disease in its tracks, because a mammogram can detect signs of cancer much earlier than when symptoms such as lumps or pain may appear. Breast cancer screening is essential to breast health.
Because young women and men typically have a lower risk of breast cancer, they likely won’t need screenings. However, women above the age of 40 should get a mammogram every year as long as they remain in good health. Women at high risk should begin screenings earlier, around age 30, and doctors may also recommend an MRI to catch cancer that a mammogram could miss.
As much as it might suck to get a mammogram, it’s worth it if it means catching cancer before it can do real damage. Even if you haven’t started getting mammograms yet, you should familiarize yourself with how your chest normally looks and feels so you can report any unusual changes to a doctor immediately.
4. Some Risk Factors Can Be Managed
In addition to uncontrollable factors such as genetics and age, some things can be controlled by the individual. Taking action to manage risk factors in your life could help lower your chance of developing breast cancer.
Diet, exercise and medical and reproductive history all influence breast cancer risk. Those who are overweight or physically inactive have a higher risk of breast cancer, and drinking alcohol also contributes significantly to risk. Exercising more regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol intake could help you avoid cancer.
In addition, exposure to hormones can increase breast cancer risk. Using hormone replacement therapy for many years during menopause can increase breast cancer risk, as can having a first pregnancy after 30.
Many factors contribute to breast cancer risk, so you should consult your doctor to assess your own unique situation.
Educate Yourself and Take Action
Breast cancer claims many lives every year. However, as more people learn about their risk and choose preventive screening, those numbers continue to decline.
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, learn your risk factors and take action to mitigate them by getting screened, consulting a doctor and making healthy lifestyle choices. When you educate yourself about the disease, you gain some of the power you need to help protect yourself.