Every year in the United States, around 264,000 women and 2,400 men are diagnosed with breast cancer. About 42,000 women and 500 men die from the disease each year. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign aimed at raising awareness about the impact of breast cancer, showing support for victims of the disease, educating people about its warning signs and promoting preventive behaviors like screening.
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in American women, second only to skin cancer. On average, a woman living in the U.S. has a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. A variety of factors contribute to someone’s risk of developing breast cancer. Many are out of our control, such as age, sex, family history, genetics and menstrual history. The two greatest risk factors are sex and age, with most cases of breast cancer occurring in middle-aged and older women. However, there are several risk factors within our control, including:
- Alcohol consumption. Women who drink even just one alcoholic beverage a day – which falls within the American dietary guidelines’ definition of moderate drinking – are at a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer than those who don’t drink. And overall cancer risk increases the more you drink, even if you don’t drink every day. Binge drinking, defined for women as consuming four or more drinks at one occasion, is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. Alcohol-related cancer risk is lowest when you abstain from drinking altogether. If you do drink, it’s best to do so sparingly.
- Being overweight. Overweight and obese women have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Generally, fat cells produce more estrogen and having more estrogen in the body increases the likelihood of developing hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. This relationship is complex, however, as not all fat is created equal. For instance, fat in the midsection is more harmful than fat stored in the hips and thighs. Overall, maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce your risk for certain types of breast cancer.
- Hormones. Certain types of hormone replacement therapy (that’s often used to treat menopause symptoms) and hormonal birth control pills can increase breast cancer risk. This depends on a variety of factors such as dosage, your age when you start taking it and how long you use it. The relationship between hormonal medications and breast cancer is complex and can be controversial. Speak with your doctor about your personal risk.
- Physical activity. Many health problems can be prevented or improved by being more physically active. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise every week, and new studies have shown that even modest amounts of physical activity can provide benefits. Research shows that exercising regularly can lower your risk of developing breast cancer, as well as ease treatment-related side effects and reduce the risk of cancer recurrence for people who get breast cancer.
Early Detection and Screening
While making certain lifestyle choices can help lower your breast cancer risk, there’s no specific way to protect against the disease, making early detection and treatment the best bet for beating breast cancer. When detected early, the five-year survival rate of breast cancer is 99 percent. In order to detect possible breast cancer, all women should perform monthly breast self-examinations to check for unusual lumps, abnormal thickening, changes in shape or changes in color. Other warning signs to look for include dimpling or puckering of breast skin, swelling, redness, warmth, pain that doesn’t subside, itching or scaling and nipple discharge.
In addition to monthly self-examinations, it’s recommended that all women age 40 and older have an annual mammogram, which is a breast X-ray that can more reliably detect growths. It’s worth noting that detecting lumps or abnormalities doesn’t mean you have cancer. In fact, around 80 percent of breast tumors aren’t cancerous and it’s estimated that half of all women will receive false positive mammogram results after ten years of annual screening. Additional imaging is often all that’s required to confirm a false positive. Benign lumps and changes in breast thickness, for example, can be due to normal hormonal fluctuations that occur with menstruation. In any case, it’s better to be safe than sorry and get checked out.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people getting screened for cancer dropped dramatically. One estimate says that in 2020, around 9.4 million screenings that would’ve taken place in normal circumstances were avoided. Today, a lot of these screening numbers still haven’t fully rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Experts worry that these missed screenings will lead to later-stage cancer diagnoses, which could ultimately lead to more cancer deaths. It’s important to continue to stay on top of routine checkups and screenings; it can save your life.