Don't Hide From Breast Cancer
By Sheryl Kraft
Ever since 1992 when the pink ribbon was adopted as the official symbol of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I can't see the color pink without thinking about my own diagnosis, which started innocently enough in 1988 with a first-ever screening mammogram at the age of 34.
As you can probably imagine, I was both unprepared and shocked at this turn of events. Breast cancer was nowhere in my family. My mother, sister and grandmother—they were all alive and well and cancer-free, as were many female members of my family. I was relatively young and led a healthy life. I exercised, ate well and limited my alcohol intake to a few glasses of wine each week. I didn't fit what I thought to be the "typical" profile of a woman with breast cancer.
But I've learned a lot since then from my job as a health writer, my own personal journey and the increasing public awareness of this disease. I've also read innumerable articles on the subject.
I may know a lot, but I don't know everything. Not even the most seasoned scientists do. Breast cancer prevention continues to be elusive. And though treatment options have certainly improved through the years, the death rate from the most common cancer among women in the United States (other than skin cancer) remains stubbornly high: the American Cancer Society estimates deaths from breast cancer to be about 39,620 each year. And many myths, misconceptions and fears persist.
Before I go into them, may I make a personal plea? Please don't think breast cancer only happens to other people and can't happen to you. If you're a female, it can happen (and, yes, even if you're a male, you can get breast cancer). Being female, however, is your biggest risk factor.
True story: I knew a woman years ago who told me she never gets mammograms because she "just doesn't want to know." Hearing that was like a knife in my stomach. I begged her to get one, telling her my personal story. She refused. A few years later, I found out that she died—not from breast cancer, but from colon cancer. She had symptoms but ignored them out of fear.
Breast Cancer Dos and Don'ts
Don't think that just because you have a lump, you have cancer. Most breast lumps—in fact, 8 out of 10—are not cancer.
Do get all lumps checked out by a doctor.
Don't think that you're too young to get breast cancer.
Do know that although breast cancer is more common in women over 50, it exists in younger women, too: about 13,100 cases will be diagnosed in women under age 40. And around 26,275 breast cancers occur in women under 45.
Don't think that if you find a lump after a negative mammogram, it's OK to ignore it.
Do your health care provider if the lump doesn't go away. Mammograms can miss some cancers, especially if they're in difficult areas to see (for instance, near your armpit) or in dense breasts. You may need imaging with an MRI or ultrasound or another mammogram.
Don't think that just because the lump is painful, it can't be breast cancer.
Do realize that although most breast cancers are not painful, having pain does not mean you're cancer-free. A type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer can be painful; its early symptoms can include a red, swollen, warm and tender breast.
Don't assume that you can't get breast cancer while you're breast-feeding.
Do get the lump checked out. Yes, breast-feeding might reduce your risk, but you can still get breast cancer while you are nursing.
Don't think that just because there's no breast cancer in your family, you won't get it.
Do know the facts: According to the American Cancer Society, only about 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary. Over 85 percent of women who get diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history at all.
Don't assume that a small lump is less likely to be cancer than a large lump.
Do get any lump checked, regardless of size. Size doesn't affect the odds that it is cancer; even a tiny lump can be an aggressive cancer.
Do your best not to gain a lot of weight after menopause. Fat tissue produces estrogen, and having more fat tissue after menopause can increase your risk by raising estrogen levels. Overweight women also tend to have higher levels of insulin, which has been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer.
Do remain physically active (or if you're not, it's not too late to start). Growing evidence points to the link between physical activity and reduced breast cancer risk. As little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking can reduce risk by as much as 18 percent, according to a study from the boutron Initiative.