Breast Cancer Awareness
It’s that time of year again. In addition to black cats and jack-o-lanterns, pink ribbons will begin making their rounds. October is breast cancer awareness month, but breast cancer is something to be aware of at all times.
As one of the most common cancers globally, it’s likely that you or someone you know will have breast cancer during their lifetime. It is also the second-leading cause of death in women, resulting in a fatality rate of 2.6%.
It’s certainly not a death sentence, but it is something to keep in mind as you age and keep track of your health. As always, we recommend seeking advice from your health care provider, but we’re here to give you as much useful information as we can.
Who Gets Breast Cancer?
It’s not just women.
Men, women, intersex people, or people of any gender can develop breast cancer. However, it is a disease that primarily affects women. According to nationalbreastcancer.org, “it is estimated one in eight women, or approximately 12%, will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.” One of the greatest risk factors is being born with a female body.
There are plenty of factors that play into who will develop breast cancer. Drinking excess alcohol, smoking, poor diet and nutrition, or being obese can put you at increased risk of breast cancer. These factors can be changed through eating a nutritious diet and getting regular exercise.
Some factors, like biological or genetic influences, can’t be changed. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you’ve got a higher chance of developing breast cancer. Hereditary factors and age are out of personal control.
Breast size also, unfortunately, factors into who might get breast cancer. Dense breasts are at greater risk of breast cancer. The National Institute of Health has observed the following:
The risk of nodal metastasis is higher in women with bigger breasts. It is not clear if this increase is due to the size of the breast (largely related to obesity) or is the result of larger tumour size at presentation (due to delayed diagnosis). It is hypothesised that women with large breasts are more likely to have node positive disease mainly attributable to their breast size.
This is not to suggest that those with large breasts will develop breast cancer, or that women with smaller breasts are free of concern. The NIH also writes that larger breasts seem to develop larger tumors rather than simply develop cancer more often. This is just information to be aware of.
Presence of mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene will also put you at an increased risk of cancer. The BRCA gene (short for BReast CAncer), is a tumor-suppressing gene able to repair broken DNA. If the BRCA gene is mutated it loses the ability to repair DNA and prevent cancer. This mutation can dramatically increase your risk of cancer. It’s estimated that 55 – 65% of women with the BRCA1 mutation will develop breast cancer before 70 and approximately 45% of women with a BRCA2 mutation will develop breast cancer by 70.
Men in whom the mutated BRCA gene is present are more likely to develop breast cancer. Their risk factor jumps from likelihood of less than 1% to approximately 1% with the BRCA1 gene mutation and 6% with the BRCA2 gene mutation.
However, this mutation is somewhat rare. If you have a family history of mutated BRCA genes, it might be in your best interest to get tested. If you do not know your family history and don’t have anyone you can ask, you can consult your doctor about whether or not you should be tested. This mutation is fairly uncommon so not every woman will need to be tested for it.
This is your sign to schedule a checkup with your gynecologist. If you’re over 40, a mammogram is likely already a part of your health screening. And if you’re under 40, your health care provider can still (and should) check your breasts for any anomalies.
Covid-19 has dramatically altered many people’s schedules. Cancer.org reports that the pandemic led to a substantial dip in breast cancer screenings. Being proactive about your health is great, but it shouldn’t be at the risk of another aspect of your health. Your health care provider should be taking the utmost care to keep up with current safety guidelines.
For those who haven’t had one, a mammogram is a low-dose x-ray of the breast tissue. Decades of research indicates that regular mammograms are the best way of detecting breast cancer early on. And the earlier it’s detected, it’s likely that the treatment will need to be much less aggressive.
Breast cancer screenings are standard procedure for women’s health, so a mammogram is not likely to be offered to those who don’t see a gynecologist or health care provider specifically offering women’s health.
If you are at risk for breast cancer or suspect that something is wrong, speak to your doctor. You should still be annually visiting your primary health care provider, so use your appointment to voice your concerns.
Always disclose your background to your doctor. Nonbinary people, Trans men, and AFAB people all deserve quality healthcare and to be assessed for health risks that might affect them, and it might require an extra conversation with your health care provider to get you the care you need. Most research and discussion on breast cancer centers cisgender women, but breast cancer can affect anyone, so it’s important to stay vigilant.
What You Can Do At Home:
A quality assessment from an expert is the most reliable way to get a prognosis, but it’s not your only option. Odds are, no one knows your breasts better than you do. You know how they normally look and feel, and you’ll probably be the first to notice if they start to feel or look different. And if you’re not already familiar with them, take some time to get to know your boobs and check them out. Taking a few moments to give yourself a go-over (your daily shower is a great time to do this), could make all the difference.
The National Institute of Health reports that “despite increased use of screening mammography, a large percentage of breast cancers are detected by the patients themselves.”
The NIH also notes that abnormalities found by the patient should be carefully evaluated, so if you see something, say something. Your health care provider is undoubtedly an educated person, but they’re not perfect and they might miss something. Also, if you notice something unusual and your annual check-up is still quite a while out, there’s nothing stopping you from changing your appointment to assess your concern early. Assessing your concern early could be the thing that saves your life.
Most women don’t have their first mammogram until the age of 40. However, breast cancer can appear in people of any age. Cancer.org writes “breast cancer can strike at any age: 5% of breast cancer cases occur in women under 40 years of age.”
5% might not sound like a lot, but to give you an idea of how significant it is, only 2% of the world’s population are natural redheads. So while it isn’t common for people under 40 to develop breast cancer, it certainly isn’t impossible.
It could save your boobs, and your life.