If October makes you think of falling leaves, pumpkins, football and pink ribbons, you are not alone. Every year, $6 billion is committed to breast cancer research and awareness programs, many of which are born out of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. The exposure and dollars raised are significant in the fight against breast cancer, but resources aside, this awareness campaign is important because it reminds women across the country to pay closer attention to their breast health, and it is making a difference.
While it may seem like breast cancer is everywhere, we are trending in the right direction. Death rates from breast cancer have been gradually declining since about 1990, and we have seen a reduction in female breast cancer patients over the age of 50 because of better prevention and early treatment options.
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed of all cancers, and one out of every eight women in the U.S. will receive this diagnosis in her lifetime. Of the 250,000-plus women who will be diagnosed this year, there is a possibility one could be your mother, sister, best friend – or you. That threat is enough to make any woman concerned, so here are five things to do that just might save your life down the road.
- Know your risks. Every woman is at risk for developing breast cancer, but some are more prone than others based on genetics physiology and environmental factors. Certain things like family history, age, diet, exercise, having children, breastfeeding and high breast density influence where you fall on the low- to high-risk spectrum, and knowing where you stand will help dictate how you approach prevention and early detection. A nurse practitioner can help you determine your personal risk so you can better plan your prevention strategy.
- Know your normal. Don’t let your lack of clinical training scare you off from regular self-exams. Even though breasts can feel a bit lumpy and sensitivities vary depending on your menstrual cycle, there should be a “normal for you” range that will serve as the benchmark to flag something that is not quite right. Check your breasts about the same time of the month – the week after your menstrual cycle or about the same day of the month if you are not having menstrual cycles. If you find something that makes you uncomfortable, make an appointment with your health care provider to have another look.
- Make screening a priority. Don’t let a low breast cancer risk fool you into believing screening is unnecessary. Early detection is key to surviving breast cancer, and proactive screening is the best way to find cancer before more severe symptoms develop. Your provider can help you sort through the various recommendations, but as a rule of thumb, once you turn 40, it is time to step up your screening efforts.
- Be more diligent with age. The risk of breast cancer increases as you get older. A woman in her 30s has less than a one in 225 chance of being diagnosed, but her chances increase to nearly one in 25 when she’s in her 70s. Work with your provider to stay current on your screenings and remember that each decade after 40 marks a new set of guidelines to maintain breast health.
- Focus on overall health. Making the right lifestyle choices can reduce your risk for all sorts of cancers, not to mention things like heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Being physically active, eating a healthy diet and getting the right amount of sleep are some of the biggest indicators of good overall health, which in addition to making you feel better, will reduce your risk of breast cancer, especially as you age.
There are more than 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the United States, thanks in large part to preventative screening and early treatment. When breast cancer is found at its earliest, most treatable stage, 98 percent of women will go on to live full, healthy lives after treatment, and that is something we can all celebrate. If you are seeing pink every October, remember that awareness is only the first step. Your breasts deserve more than a ribbon, and if you are not diligent about screening up to now, October should serve as a reminder to take preventative care seriously. With advanced education and clinical training, plus preparation rooted in the compassionate, patient-centered nursing model, our profession as nurse practitioners are on the front lines of ensuring patients best understand their breast cancer risk and take the necessary steps to protect themselves from this potentially devastating diagnosis.