Each October, the United States observes Breast Cancer Awareness Month in recognition of people living with this serious disease and the loved ones we’ve lost to it. It’s also an opportunity to raise awareness of the typical symptoms of breast cancer and how early detection can save your life. Just what is breast cancer, what steps can you take to prevent it, and what happens if you’re diagnosed with it? Today, I’ll walk you through some of the breast cancer basics so you can be more aware of your breast health. Breast cancer can affect anyone, so knowing the facts can help you stay healthy.
What is Breast Cancer? Statistics, Symptoms, and More
You’ve probably heard of breast cancer—it’s why doctors recommend women between the ages of 40 and 45 begin annual mammograms to evaluate their breast health and detect any issues. That’s because, next to skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the U.S. It usually affects women over the age of 50, but younger women can and do develop it as well. While it’s true that men can also develop breast cancer, it’s at a much lower rate—about one percent of breast cancer diagnoses in the U.S. are in men.
How do you know if you have breast cancer? The symptoms of breast cancer can vary from person to person, and some people will experience no detectable symptoms at all. Some of the more common symptoms include changes in the size or shape of your breast, breast pain, a noticeable lump, or any nipple discharge other than breast milk. If you notice any of these changes in one or both of your breasts, you should immediately contact your general practitioner or gynecologist. Some breast changes are benign, and most breast lumps are not cancerous—but it’s always better to play it safe.
Mayo Clinic Explains Breast Cancer – Mayo Clinic
What happens after you’ve been diagnosed? That depends on your unique case. Doctors and other medical professionals use a range of effective modalities to treat breast cancer, which is why current survival rates are better than ever. These can include surgery to remove the cancer, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormonal and immunotherapy. What works for one patient may not be appropriate for the next. In some cases, doctors and the patient may decide together that the best course of action is to remove the affected breast(s) in a surgical procedure known as a mastectomy. Some patients elect to have both breasts removed when only one is cancerous to prevent future problems. Some breast cancer patients who undergo mastectomy go on to pursue breast reconstruction surgery to rebuild the appearance of their breast(s). Each patient’s journey from diagnosis to wellness looks different, and it’s important to have support from medical professionals and loved ones along the way.
Breast Cancer Prevention and Screening Tips
All this new information can be frightening, especially if you’ve ever had a breast cancer scare or a family history of the disease. It can make you feel anxious and helpless, knowing that it isn’t possible to prevent cancer one hundred percent of the time, especially since it often has a genetic component. The good news is that you can take several important steps to protect yourself from breast cancer through good prevention habits and annual screenings. You might start with a simple breast self-examination in which you check for lumps, painful spots, and any other abnormalities. You can do this in the comfort and privacy of your home while showering or immediately afterward. Experts recommend that you do this once a month, so program it into your phone’s calendar or leave yourself a Post-It by your bathroom mirror to remind you.
Regarding your lifestyle, you can help protect yourself against breast cancer (and many other serious illnesses) by developing some good daily habits. If you’re overweight or obese, talk to your doctor about a realistic exercise and eating plan to help you lose the extra pounds. Maintaining a healthy weight is one important way to reduce the risk of breast cancer, especially in a woman’s post-menopausal years, as is making time for daily exercise. Aim for thirty minutes of exercise at least five days a week: walking, jogging, Zumba, swimming, barre, or whatever gets your heart rate up. Additionally, enjoy alcohol in moderation, as drinking alcohol raises your risk of developing a number of cancers.
Regular mammograms (which are X-ray pictures of your breasts that can detect any abnormalities) are important tools for early detection and treatment. If you’re a woman over the age of 40, ask your doctor if it’s time to begin having a mammogram annually or every two years.
How to Celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month
There’s no time like Breast Cancer Awareness Month to evaluate your current risk of developing breast cancer and devise some simple strategies for living a healthier lifestyle. You might schedule your first mammogram, add more fruits and vegetables to your diet, or make time for a brisk walk every day after work. You could also display a pink breast cancer ribbon on your bag, car, or front lawn in recognition of people living with breast cancer. Or you could donate to a non-profit organization supporting breast cancer research, like the American Cancer Society.
Breast cancer can be an intimidating topic since it’s not completely preventable (at least not yet) and can take a major toll on your health. While you can’t alter some risk factors, like your genes and family history, you can control how you care for yourself daily. It’s okay to start small—swap your usual boozy happy-hour drink for a mocktail, join a twice-weekly exercise class, or take a fifteen-minute walk during your lunch break. This October, making some basic lifestyle changes will help keep you happier and healthier for many years to come.