October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

OCTOBER 1, 2014

There are a number of health-related awareness months at any time of the year, but none have the high profile and awareness of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Whether it’s the familiar pink ribbons, National Football League players accessorizing their uniforms with pink towels and shoes, or the well-known “Race for the Cure” sponsored by the Susan G. Komen Foundation, there is a lot of awareness about breast cancer during the month of October, and for good reason.

Like most cancers, breast cancer is a serious health threat. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women, behind skin cancer and is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women, behind lung cancer. Breast cancer can also affect men, though it’s very uncommon. According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, it is estimated that in 2014, there will be more than 230,000 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in women and 40,000 women will die from the disease.

According to Texas Health Care member Joseph Heyne, MD, a breast surgeon who is part of the surgical unit at John Peter Smith Hospital (JPS), “Breast cancer has little respect for age, race or socioeconomic status. It can affect anyone, and it’s important that people know the keys to early detection. Early detection of breast cancer is critical to defeating this disease.”

Symptoms of breast cancer may include a lump in the breast or thickening of breast tissue, bloody discharge from the nipple, and change in the shape or size of the breast. Individuals who experience any of these symptoms or anything else unusual should see a doctor immediately for an examination.

The causes of breast cancer are unclear. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is estimated that five to ten percent of breast cancers are hereditary. Known risk factors associated with breast cancer include age (the older you are, the more likely you are to be at risk), drinking alcohol and obesity. Additionally, women who have never been pregnant, first become pregnant after age 35 and women who experience menopause later in life have some higher risk of developing breast cancer. Exposure to radiation treatments also increases the risk of the disease.

The good news is that the incidence of breast cancer is decreasing and the survival rate is increasing. According to the American Cancer Society, incidence rates began to decrease in 2000 and there was a seven percent drop in in the early part of the last decade.

Most importantly, with women and their families becoming more aware than ever of the value of regular screenings, early detection of breast cancer has led to more effective treatments and outcomes. If detected in an early stage, the five-year survival rate (meaning the patient lives at least five years, but often much longer) is 90 percent.

“Regular screening is incredibly important in the fight against breast cancer. Early detection can be the difference between life and death,” says Texas Health Care oncology surgeon Anita Chow, MD, who also practices at JPS.

Women should conduct breast self-exams (BSEs) beginning in their twenties. Doing this will help detect a lump or anything else unusual that might develop. There are numerous online resources available that describe the best techniques for a BSE, or your physician can also help you learn. If a BSE results in anything unusual being discovered, you should make an appointment with your physician right away.

Mammograms are one of the most effective ways to detect breast cancer. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that women in their 40s have a mammogram every two years and that women age 50 and older be screened annually. These are general guidelines, and your physician will make a specific recommendations for screenings based upon your medical history and any known risk factors. If a mammogram is inconclusive, your physician may recommend a diagnostic mammogram or other diagnostic exam for a better assessment.

“Mammography guidelines are not hard and fast rules. Women should work with their doctor to ensure they are following the best protocol for their own personal situation,” said Texas Health Care member Cynthia English, D.O.

A great Tarrant County resource is the Baylor All Saints Medical Center Andrews Women’s Hospital, which provides comprehensive health care services for women, including breast screenings and imaging. Texas Health Care physicians helped found Andrews and today, 25 Texas Health Care member physicians practice there.

This October, take some time to determine if you or your loved ones are up to date on your screenings. If not, pick up the phone and make an appointment – it’s one of the most important things you can do for your health.