Let's Talk About Breast Cancer

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Calling all women and (men) too, October is BREAST CANCER awareness month! If you have noticed any changes in your breasts, make an appointment with your physician or healthcare provider NOW!

Breast cancer affects one in eight women during their lives. Being female is the most significant risk factor for breast cancer. It kills more women in the United States than any cancer except lung cancer. Although men can develop this disease, it is about 100 times more common among women. Male breast cancer makes up less than 1 percent of all cases of breast cancer, and is usually detected in men between 60 and 70 years of age. Whether you are male or female, getting tested regularly for breast cancer is the best way to lower your risk of dying from the disease.

It is extremely important that women understand that their breasts change over a lifetime. It is also important to understand which of those changes are normal and which are not. Age is a well–established risk factor for breast cancer. The older a woman is, the more likely she is to develop the disease. In general, rates of breast cancer are low in women under age 40, begin to increase after age 40 and are highest in women over age 70. In the United States, 95 percent of the women diagnosed with breast cancer each year are age 40 or older. No one knows why some women get breast cancer, but there are a number of risk factors. Risks that you cannot change include:

  • Age – The chance of getting breast cancer rises as a woman gets older
  • Genes – A family history of breast or ovarian cancer
  • Personal factors – Beginning periods before age 12 or going through menopause after age 55

Other risks include being overweight, using hormone replacement therapy, taking birth control pills, drinking alcohol, not having children or having your first child after age 35, or having dense breasts. Moreover, rates of breast cancer vary by race and ethnicity. Although white women are more likely to develop postmenopausal breast cancer than African–American women, African–American women are more likely to develop pre–menopausal breast cancer. African–American women appear to have more reproductive factors related to breast cancer risk such as an earlier age at menarche, later age at menopause, a greater number of lifetime periods and higher blood estrogen levels. However, at this time the reasons behind the increased risk of pre–menopausal breast cancer among African American women remain unclear.

What tests are available to me if I think I might have breast cancer? There are two different stages of testing. Screening tests (such as an annual mammogram) look for signs of disease in women without symptoms; they should be part of every healthy woman’s routine. Diagnostic tests (such as magnetic resonance imaging [MRI], blood tests, or bone scans) become part of the picture when breast cancer is suspected or has been diagnosed.

There is a whole world of testing that goes along with taking care of your breasts. Tests can be nerve–wracking, but they are a must. Early testing and screening may:

  • Find breast cancer early, when it is most treatable.
  • Help your treatment team design the treatment that is right for you.
  • Determine your next steps.

What if I can not afford to pay for my mammogram? Most insurance companies cover the cost of mammograms. In addition, in many areas of the country, low–cost or free mammograms are provided as part of the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Program or through community organizations, such as the YWCA. In October each year, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, many radiology facilities offer mammography at reduced rates. To find out how to get a low–cost or free mammogram or to find a certified radiology center in your area, call Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s Breast Care Helpline at 1–800 I’M AWARE (1–800–462–9273). You can also visit the FDA website to search a list of certified radiology centers.

There is no sure way to avoid breast cancer. Some healthy lifestyle choices, however, may help lower the risk of the disease and have the added bonus of cutting the risk of heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer and osteoporosis. Everyone should try to:

  • Be physically active.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Cut down on "bad" fats (saturated and transfats), and consume more "good" fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, like olive and canola oil).
  • Take a daily multivitamin with folic acid (often called folate on nutrition labels).
  • If you drink, limit alcohol intake to less than one alcoholic drink a day (for women and fewer than two drinks a day for men).
  • Choose to breastfeed children instead of formula feeding them if possible.

It is never too late to adopt healthy behaviors. Making healthy lifestyle choices can be good for people at any time in their lives. Choosing to be more physically active, eating a more balanced diet or becoming more aware of overall health can be both physically and mentally rewarding at any point in life.

For more information on Breast Cancer Awareness month, contact the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged, Inc. at 202–637–8400 or visit www.ncba–aged.org.

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