Pink Ribbon with text overlay: Wellness Wednesday: Breast Cancer Awareness

[Wellness Wednesday] Breast Cancer Awareness

Welcome back to Wellness Wednesday! I’m very late in talking about this, but it’s a subject that is personal to me and something that’s important to talk about. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Other than skin cancers, breast cancer is the most common cancer that affects women in the US. On average, 1 in 8 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in their lives.

So why am I writing about cancer in a Wellness post? Because there are things we can do to help reduce our risk and, if we do have breast cancer, improve our chances of survival. That’s part of what makes Breast Cancer Awareness so important. Of course, the other part is that it helps raise money for research, which gives us more (and better) treatment options.

First, let’s look at risk factors. Before we talk about these risk factors, though, let me remind you of one thing: Just because you have risk factors, that doesn’t mean that you will develop breast cancer.

The can be divided into two groups: those we can control, and those we can’t.

Risk Factors We Can’t Change:

  • Being born female. Women are much more likely than men to develop breast cancer. Men, that doesn’t mean that you can’t get it – it just means your risk is much lower.
  • Getting older. Our chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer increase as we get older.
  • An inherited risk of breast cancer, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 genes. (Click here for an explanation of these.)
  • Family history of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, “Having a first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer almost doubles a woman’s risk.”
  • Having a personal history of breast cancer. If you’ve had cancer in one breast, you are at higher risk of developing it in your other breast.
  • Starting your menstrual period early. If you started your period early, especially before age 12, you have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Going through menopause after age 55. This, as well as the early period risk, is thought to have something to do with longer exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
  • Having radiation treatments to your chest as a teenager or young adult.

This isn’t an all-inclusive list, but as you can see, we have a lot of risks that we can’t do anything about. For a complete list of risks, visit the American Cancer Society. Again, this doesn’t mean we will develop cancer.

Now for the good news: there are some risk factors we can control. Managing those risks can help us not only possibly reduce our risk for breast cancer, it can also improve our overall wellness.

Risk Factors We Can Control:

  • Drinking alcohol. According to the American Cancer Society, “Drinking alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Women who have 1 alcoholic drink a day have a small (about 7% to 10%) increase in risk compared with non-drinkers, while women who have 2 to 3 drinks a day have about a 20% higher risk than non-drinkers.”
  • Being overweight or obese after menopause. That’s because after menopause, most of the estrogen in women’s bodies comes from fat cells. The more fat you have, the more estrogen you may be exposed to. In addition, women who have higher body fat also tend to have higher insulin levels, which has been linked to breast cancer.
  • Not being physically active. There’s growing evidence that physical activity reduces breast cancer risk, though it’s not exactly clear why just yet.
  • Hormone therapy after menopause. Combined Hormone Therapy after menopause increases breast cancer risk. Most often the increased risk is seen after four years of use.

Again, this list is not all-inclusive. For a complete list, visit the American Cancer Society.

Now that we know the risk factors, let’s look at some of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.

Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer:

According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of breast cancer may include:

  • A breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue
  • Change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast
  • Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling
  • A newly inverted nipple
  • Peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin
  • Redness or pitting of the skin over your breast, like the skin of an orange.

If you experience any of these signs or symptoms, it’s important that you contact your doctor right away. They might turn out to be nothing serious, but better safe than sorry. Early detection is key.

Let me repeat that — early detection is key!

Finding breast cancer early, before it has had the chance to spread, and “getting state-of-the-art cancer treatment are the most important strategies to prevent deaths from breast cancer.” (ACS) It’s much easier to successfully treat breast cancer when it’s found early, and the easiest way to find it early is with regular screening tests.

These are the screening recommendations from the American Cancer Society for women who are at average risk for breast cancer:

Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.

Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.

Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live at least 10 more years.

These are their recommendations for screening for women who are at high risk:

Women who are at high risk for breast cancer based on certain factors should get a breast MRI and a mammogram every year, typically starting at age 30. This includes women who:

  • Have a lifetime risk of breast cancer of about 20% to 25% or greater, according to risk assessment tools that are based mainly on family history (see below)
  • Have a known BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation (based on having had genetic testing)
  • Have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, and have not had genetic testing themselves
  • Had radiation therapy to the chest when they were between the ages of 10 and 30 years
  • Have Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Cowden syndrome, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome, or have first-degree relatives with one of these syndromes

Screening tests can identify cancers before you start to have symptoms (such as a lump or any of the other symptoms listed above) and give you the best chance of successful and less-invasive treatment.

Yes, mammograms are uncomfortable – it’s definitely not something I look forward to every year – but they do save lives.

If you’re too young (I’m jealous!) for mammograms, your best chance of detecting breast cancer early is to know your breasts. Although the ACS no longer recommends the official monthly self-exam, knowing what is “normal” for your breasts can help you realize when things don’t look or feel right. If you notice any changes or have any of the signs and symptoms listed above, please contact your doctor and get it checked out.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a subject that is very personal to me. My beautiful mother is a breast cancer survivor. Because she is so faithful in having her preventive care checks, including a mammogram, they caught and treated it early. If she hadn’t been so proactive with her healthcare, things could have gone very differently.

This needs to be said, though: Even if you are faithful in your preventive care and get your screenings as recommended for your risk level, that is not a guarantee that it will be caught at an early stage. There are people who do everything “right” and are still diagnosed with later-stage, aggressive cancers. Screening is not perfect, but it is a great weapon in our arsenal.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month isn’t just about having a month filled with the color pink; it’s about saving lives.

Improving our general wellness, managing the risk factors we can control, and detecting breast cancer early are all things that can help us in our fight.

Since this is such a personal subject, I won’t ask my usual questions, but please feel free to share any thoughts you’d like to share!

Blessings,

~Terri

Sources:

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/about

PDQ® Screening and Prevention Editorial Board. PDQ Breast Cancer Prevention. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/patient/breast-prevention-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389410]

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/breast-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20352470

Five Ways to Reduce Your Breast Cancer Risk https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/five-ways-to-reduce-your-breast-cancer-risk.html

23 comments

  1. Yep! I’m high risk. Sister and mother and mothers aunties (maternal and paternal). I’ve had biopsies of abnormal but benign. I just figure it is a matter of time. I’m not worried. It will be caught soon. My biggest thing is being overweight due to medication and too much sitting due to pain. But I plug on.

    Be well!!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing Ruth. That whole weight-gain thing seems to be a catch-22 for those of us who either have chronic pain and/or are menopausal isn’t it? Weight gain seems to come with both those situations and we just have to manage it the best we can. Being aware of our need for caution when we’re at high risk may be our best defense. Blessings to you sweet friend!

  2. Just going for the recommended mammogram can detect what might otherwise be overlooked. I was lucky that they found abnormal, and aggressive cells and removed them before cancer developed. Now I go regularly for checkups.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing V.J.. I’m glad they were able to get to yours before it became cancerous. Mammograms definitely aren’t perfect, but they do catch a lot of things we wouldn’t know were in there otherwise. Hope you’re doing well and staying warm. Hugs!

      1. Oooohhh…. it’s too early for snow! It’s gloomy and rainy today, and we’re supposed to get quite a bit of rain over the next couple of days. I’m not complaining though — we’ve been in drought condition here, so we’re happy to see the wet stuff.

  3. I was high risk and had a mammogram yearly, and still was stage IV de novo. I was faithful in my preventative care. Early detection may be a key, but it is not a guarantee. 30% of earlier stage cancers become metastatic. Thank you for writing about reducing risks rather than healthy habits completely preventing a cancer from developing. Be well!

    1. Kristie, thank you so much for bringing up that extremely important point about early detection not being a guarantee. I think I’ll go back and edit this to reflect that. Sometimes, even when we do everything we’re “supposed” to do, cancer can develop and spread before we catch it. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and firsthand knowledge with us. Blessings to you sweet friend!

  4. Terri, this was a wonderful post with great information. I have been trying to avoid a mammogram for years because I am terrified of it. Plus, there really isn’t much up there to be screened! I have had the same lumps for years, they do not grow or change at all, plus they are mobile. My friend is an ultra-sound tech and said I was too young for a mammogram, but that was years ago! I agree with what she said though, it would be best to start with an ultrasound. I told my doctor they would do damaged with how small I am up top and something might pop off! Really just kind of kidding!!

    1. Thank you so much Alyssa! I know the thought of mammograms can be scary, especially when you hear other people talk about how bad they are, but I don’t think they’re as bad as everybody says…. It’s definitely not comfortable, but it doesn’t last that long. I’ve had the compression mammograms a couple of times because I had an abnormal initial mammogram, and even they weren’t horrible…. To me it’s worth the temporary discomfort to make sure everything is okay in there. Hope you’re doing well sweet friend. Hugs!

  5. Breast cancer is such an important topic to raise awareness of because, as you say, early detection is so very important. My auntie had breast cancer, then it spread to lymph nodes. We see the campaigns and the stats about breast cancer, but it’s harder to put it into practice and check yourself. The part that confuses me is with lumps and tissue thickening; what kind of lump are we looking for (pea size or orange size, soft or hard), how do we know what’s a lymph node under the armpit and whether it’s swollen? I think the best thing is to always get it checked if anything is slightly different to what you expect, because it’s better to play on the side of caution. I’m so glad your mum was diagnosed early so she could be treated and become a survivor. Too many become statistics of this awful disease but hopefully – hopefully – increased awareness and better diagnostics and treatments will reduce those numbers. Fantastic post, Terri  ♥
    Caz xx

    1. Thank you so much for sharing Caz. I’m sorry to hear your auntie had breast cancer. I really hope that one day researchers will unlock the key that will heal all cancers. I see what you mean about the lumps and tissue thickening and what size you should be looking for. I agree with what you said about it being best to have it checked out if it’s anything different than what you expect. Lots of us have lumpy breasts, but if lumps show up that are not in the normal place or normal size, etc., it’s definitely better to get them checked. Even if it turns out to be nothing, it’s still better to have had it checked and anything bad ruled out. Hope you’re doing well sweet friend. Hugs!

  6. Love your posts as always Terri. You not only educate but give information in a way that we can really understand. My wife is diligent on her exams and I too make sure that I’m in the clear.

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