Standing up to breast cancer


October is breast cancer awareness month, and we hope people are thinking about that.

Why does breast cancer get its own month? Because of the pervasiveness of the disease.

According to the most widely known statistics, one woman in eight will have breast cancer in her lifetime.

What that looks like this year, according to the American Cancer Society, is diagnosis of about 232,340 new cases of breast cancer in women; diagnosis of about 64,640 new cases of carcinoma in situ, the non-invasive, earliest form of breast cancer; and the death from breast cancer of about 39,620 women.

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, behind lung cancer. Female breast cancer incidence rose for two decades until 2000, then began decreasing. A significant drop of 7 percent occurred between 2002 and 2003; many think that’s because of the decrease in using hormone therapy after menopause, after the practice was linked to increased breast cancer and heart disease in 2002. Since 2003, rates have been steady.

The good news is breast cancer deaths have been declining since about 1989, with larger decreases in women younger than 50. Improved treatments is part of the explanation for that, but so is awareness and earlier detection.

Closer to home, the Arkansas Health Department projects 2,280 new diagnoses of breast cancer in the state with 420 women dying from the disease this year.

According to the Health Department, white women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but African American women are more likely to die from the disease.

In addition to race, age is another factor in assessing the risk for breast cancer, which can appear in men but is predominantly a women’s disease. Having an immediate family member — a mother, sister or daughter — diagnosed with breast cancer increases a woman’s risk; so does having periods before she is 12 or after she is 55. Certain gene mutations also are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

More good news: Although women can’t change their families or their genes, there are many things they can do to decrease their odds of facing the disease. Getting regular exercise, avoiding adult weight gain and limiting alcohol intake are recommended by the American Cancer Society.

A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, poultry, fish and low-fat dairy products has been linked to a lower risk of cancer, but no specific foods are singled out as cancer preventers.

A third dose of good news: Early detection helps identify breast cancer when it is most treatable.

Good detection practices include breast self-exams, annual clinical breast exams and mammograms as appropriate.

Women who are known to have certain genetic mutations, have immediate family members diagnosed with breast cancer, had radiation therapy to the chest or have other medical conditions should add an MRI to their mammograms.

For too long breast cancer was a hidden disease, one talked about in whispers, and those whispers were deadly.

Today, we are making strides in prevention, detection and treatment, and those strides are directly linked to our willingness to confront this disease and talk about it.

If you are a woman, please discuss your risk factors with your doctor and together work on a strategy for prevention and screening. The great thing about exercising, controlling your weight and limiting your alcohol intake is those easy breast cancer-prevention steps are good, healthy practices for every part of your life.

If you love a woman, please make she’s aware of risk factors, prevention, detection and treatment options. Remind her that breast cancer is increasingly treatable, and new treatments often have fewer of the debilitating side effects of treatments in the past. Early detection may mean the difference between just removing a lump and removing a breast, and when women and their doctors opt for mastectomy, reconstructive surgery may be done sooner than in the past and sometimes more easily.

It’s October and you’re going to be seeing a lot of pink. While there are plenty of worthy fundraising events going on this month, it is raising awareness that is paramount. The best treatments are useless if the disease goes undetected.

Schedule a mammogram for yourself or someone you love. See your doctor regularly. Do your self-exams, and if you find a lump, call your doctor.

Breast cancer is an ugly disease, but together we can stand up to it.