Washington, DC — Breast cancer consistently tops the list of health concerns for many women and fear of developing the disease can be a tremendous source of anxiety. Fortunately, preventive measures can reduce a woman’s risk of breast cancer and early detection can improve her chances of survival. During National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (The College) urges women to move beyond fear and into action by reducing personal breast cancer risk factors, having regular mammograms, and tuning in to breast changes that warrant further assessment.
Breast cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer death among women after lung cancer. In 2011, it is estimated that more than 230,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 39,000 women will die from it. While these figures are alarming, there is much good news.
“There’s still a lot more to be done in the fight against breast cancer, but we have come a long way,” said James N. Martin, Jr, MD, president of The College. “Advances in early detection and improved treatments have led to a steady decrease in breast cancer-related deaths since the 1990s. The 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the US serve as proof that more women are beating breast cancer than ever before. Women diagnosed with breast cancer also have a wider variety of breast-conserving treatments and reconstruction options to consider. And an increasing body of research suggests that women can make a difference in preventing or detecting cancer early.”
Being a woman and getting older are the two main, non-modifiable risk factors for breast cancer. Family history, personal history of certain cancers, no pregnancies or first pregnancy later in life, beginning menstrual periods before age 12 or menopause after age 55, obesity, heavy alcohol intake (defined as more than seven drinks per week), and use of some types of hormone therapy can also increase a woman’s risk. A woman’s individual risk factors can help guide her efforts in preventing cancer.
“There’s a reason why so many doctors preach the gospel of living a healthy lifestyle. In addition to lowering the risk of breast cancer, it can have a significant impact on a woman’s risk for many cancers and other illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease,” Dr. Martin said. The American Institute for Cancer Research estimates that almost 40 percent of the breast cancer cases in the US—about 70,000 cases a year—could be prevented if women maintained a healthy weight, exercised, and limited the amount of alcohol they drink. Getting 30-90 minutes of exercise on most days, consuming a well-balanced diet, and drinking less than one alcoholic drink per day is a great start for most women.
Women should also take family history into account. Roughly 20 percent of women with breast cancer have close relatives such as siblings, parents, or grandparents who have also had the disease. Women with a strong family history should talk to their doctor about interventions such as beginning mammography before age 40 and prophylactic medication therapy or surgery to reduce their risk.
In some instances, women who’ve done everything that they can to avoid breast cancer still develop the disease. This is why regular mammography screening is so critical. “We know that mammograms are central to early detection in all women, regardless of risk factors,” Dr. Martin said. Mammograms can detect changes in the breast as small as a pinhead, often one to two years earlier than when a lump can be felt and before the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. The five-year survival rate for cancer caught at this stage is 98 percent, a compelling reason to get screened. The College recommends that women 40 and older be offered annual mammograms. Clinical breast exams performed by a physician are also recommended yearly for women 40 and over and every one to three years among women ages 20-39.
Nearly one half of all cases of breast cancer in women 50 years and older and more than 70% of cases in women younger than 50 years are discovered by women themselves, frequently unintentionally. Instead of traditional breast self-exams, The College now recommends that women develop breast self-awareness, meaning that they become more familiar with what’s normal for their breasts and better able to detect changes. Women who experience changes such as lumps in the breast or underarm, dimpling, breast pain, redness or thickening of the nipple or breast skin, or anything else that looks or feels different should quickly report them to their doctor.
“Awareness of and commitment to doing what’s best for your body can make a big difference in your health,” Dr. Martin said. “Do what you can to reduce your risk, because your actions do make a difference.”
To learn more about taking control of your breast health, The College’s “Spotlight on Breast Cancer” is available online.
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The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (The College), a 501(c)(3) organization, is the nation’s leading group of physicians providing health care for women. As a private, voluntary, nonprofit membership organization of approximately 55,000 members, The College strongly advocates for quality health care for women, maintains the highest standards of clinical practice and continuing education of its members, promotes patient education, and increases awareness among its members and the public of the changing issues facing women’s health care. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a 501(c)(6) organization, is its companion organization. Follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acognews and at www.acog.org.