National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mary Carlisle
  • 579th Medical Group
Breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer in women in the United States, and is the second leading cause of cancer death in women. That is why October is designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. a

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 192,370 new cases of breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed among women in the United States in 2009, and an estimated 40,170 women are expected to die from the disease. Additionally, an estimated 1,910 new cases of breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed among men. But there is good news. There are about 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States today. 

The most common signs of breast cancer are a lump in the breast, abnormal thickening of the breast, or a change in the shape or color of the breast. However, finding a lump or change in your breast does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer. 

According to Health Net Federal Services, a majority of breast lumps are not life threatening. In fact, breast lumps found during breast exams are often diagnosed as benign. Non-cancerous breast lumps are most commonly caused by fibrocystic changes. Symptoms include premenstrual swelling, irregular or lumpy texture, and constant or occasional breast tenderness or fullness. Eating a low-fat diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, avoiding caffeine and reducing salt intake may provide relief. 

Although many breast lumps may be non-cancerous, lumps or tender breasts may also be a sign of breast cancer. Additional symptoms include a lump in the underarm that lasts through the menstrual cycle, an area that is clearly different from any other area on either breast, a change in the feel or look of the skin on the breast or areola, or discharge. Contact your health care provider immediately if any of these symptoms occur. 

It is important for women to practice the elements of good breast health. Mammography screening remains the best available method to detect breast cancer early. One of the earliest signs of breast cancer can be an abnormality that shows up on a mammogram before it can be felt. Early detection of any type of lump is critical for successful treatment. 

Mammograms, along with clinical breast exams, self-exams and general breast awareness, are the most effective ways to detect breast cancer early. Start conducting monthly breast self-examinations by age 20. A clinical breast examination as part of a regular health exam by a healthcare professional should be performed every three years. 

Annual mammograms are recommended for women starting at the age of 40. However, women with a family history of breast cancer should talk to their health care provider about when they should begin having screening mammograms or additional testing.

There are other things you can do to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. According to a recent article in The Breast Journal, smoking 100 or more cigarettes may substantially increase a woman's odds of developing breast cancer. Therefore, a female smoker can reduce her risk of breast cancer by quitting smoking as soon as possible. 

Additionally, the Diet and Cancer Report Web site says nearly 40 percent of all breast cancer cases in the United States could be prevented if women kept a healthy weight, drank less alcohol, exercised more and breastfed their babies, and that 70,000 breast cancer cases could be prevented in the United States alone every year. 

Lt. Col. Carlisle is chief nurse for the 579th Medical Group at Bolling Air Force Base, D.C.