THE BLOG
10/14/2014 10:21 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

Breast Cancer, a Global Disease

mangostock via Getty Images

October is International Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time when our thoughts turn to the women and their families affected by breast cancer across the world, and we consider what we can do both as individuals and as a community to prevent the disease, increase early detection and improve the outcomes of those diagnosed.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women across the globe, with an estimated 1.67 million women diagnosed in 2012. By 2020 it is expected that this number will increase to almost 2 million.

I started working as a breast physician over 25 years ago and have witnessed enormous changes in clinical knowledge and community attitudes when it comes to cancer.

It's only a generation ago that breast cancer was still very much a topic not spoken of openly. Early detection messages were not widespread, and there was little awareness in the community of symptoms to look out for.

As a result, a higher proportion of women were diagnosed with larger breast cancers and later stage disease compared with today. Mastectomy was commonly performed even in women with small cancers and there was little in the way of supportive care or acknowledgement of the significant impact of the disease and its treatments on women.

Scientific advances have informed public health programs and clinical practice, resulting in dramatic improvements in early detection, diagnosis and treatment options, as well as greater awareness in the community. It's a great success story, and although the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer is increasing year on year, so too are the survival rates.

In Australia, for example, survival rates have increased significantly in recent years. In the mid-1980s just 7 out of every 10 women diagnosed could expect to live five years after their diagnosis. Today in Australia, as in the U.S., that number has risen, with around 9 out of 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer expected to live at least five years after diagnosis.

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let's all do what we can to keep up the momentum and reduce the impact of breast cancer. Knowledge is power -- knowledge to reduce risk of breast cancer, and to find cancer early if it's there.

Reduce your risk:
It is estimated that at least one-third of breast cancers are preventable. While there are risk factors such as age, family history and genetics which are beyond individual control, there are a number of positive lifestyle changes women can make to reduce risk of developing breast cancer.

Being physically active every day, maintaining a healthy body weight and limiting alcohol intake all significantly reduce the risk of developing breast cancer, and with 3 out of 4 breast cancers being diagnosed in women over the age of 50, it's never too late to start.

To help women identify their risk of developing breast cancer, Cancer Australia has developed a risk calculator that will help individuals gain an understanding of their level of risk compared to another woman of the same age group.

Be breast aware:
Knowing what's normal for you is important for women of all ages, even if you are having regular mammograms. Remember, you don't need to be an expert or use a special technique to check your breasts, you just need to take the time to familiarize yourself with your body so you can notice any changes that may be unusual for you.

Changes to look out for include a new lump, or lumpiness, especially if it's only in one breast; a change in the shape or size of the breast; a change to the nipple, such as crusting, ulcer, redness or inversion; a change in the skin over your breast such as redness or dimpling; or an unusual pain that doesn't go away.

Most changes aren't due to breast cancer, but it's important to see your doctor if you notice anything new or unusual for you. If the change is due to breast cancer, the earlier cancer is found and treated, the better the chances of survival.

Looking forward, cancer research is progressing at an astounding pace and the challenge is to ensure that the best available evidence is translated into optimal and effective care for people affected by cancer.

As CEO of Cancer Australia, I am committed to improving the wellbeing and outcomes of women with breast cancer irrespective of where they live, their race or social circumstances by introducing innovative solutions to address challenges, and ensuring that the latest evidence drives and supports breast cancer treatment and care.

Cancer Australia is the Australian Government's national agency providing leadership in cancer control to improve outcomes for those affected by cancer, their families and carers.