THINK PINK – Breast Cancer Awareness
Every October, the breast cancer awareness campaign brings a sea of pink ribbons into public view across the nation in order to increase awareness—and hopefully early detection—of breast cancer. Since the pink ribbon’s inception in the early 1990’s, early detection rates have increased, and death rates have decreased. Survivor stories abound, and tales of incredible strength and resilience offer hope and inspiration to women and men alike.
However, breast cancer remains a formidable threat to women, and even to a small percentage of men. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS) projections for 2016, about 246,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women, and about 40,450 women will die from breast cancer this year. While rare, this disease does occur in men, but it is 100 times more common in women.
Second only to skin cancer, breast cancer is among the most common cancers among women. About one in every eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime
The death rate from breast cancer has been decreasing since 1989, likely due to early detection, increased awareness and better treatments. The incidence—the number of new cases diagnosed annually—began decreasing in 2000. This decrease is thought to be due to a decrease in the use of hormone therapy after menopause. The results of the Women’s Health Initiative, which likely affected the continued use of hormone therapy, linked the use of hormone therapy to an increased risk of breast cancer and heart disease.
While it continues to be the second leading cause of cancer death to women—second to lung cancer—there are more than 2.8 million survivors of breast cancer in the United States today. There are reasons to be optimistic, as trends continue to show decreased incidence and increased survival rates.
October is designated as the month to heighten awareness of breast cancer, but this awareness should not be practiced only one month each year. Being aware of risk factors—both those that cannot be controlled and those that can—is an important first step in continuing to keep the diagnosis numbers down, and the survival rates up.
There are many women who have many of the following risk factors, but never develop cancer. Other women, unfortunately, have no other risks besides being female and aging, yet they develop cancer. Those two factors cannot be avoided, neither can certain gene changes. Other factors that cannot be changed include:
Race/ethnicity: White women have a slightly greater risk of developing breast cancer than African-American women, but African-American women are more likely to die of it. Asian, Hispanic and Native American Women have a lower risk of developing and dying from breast cancer.
Having a personal history of breast cancer: If a woman has already had breast cancer in one breast, she has a greater risk of developing cancer in the other breast, or in another part of the same breast. This is not to be confused with recurrence, which is when the original cancer returns. The younger the woman with breast cancer, the greater this risk is.
Family History: An important statistic to note is that approximately eight of ten women who develop breast cancer have no family history of breast cancer. However, women with a blood relative who has had breast cancer do have a higher risk. Having a first-degree relative—mother, sister, daughter—with breast cancer doubles the risk. Having two first-degree relatives with breast cancer can increase the risk to three-fold. In the rare cases where a father or brother has had breast cancer, a higher risk exists.
Having dense breast tissue: breasts are made up of fatty tissue, fibrous tissue and glandular tissue. Having less fatty tissue than fibrous and glandular tissue as determined by a mammogram increases the risk from 1.2 to 2 times greater.
Starting menstruation before age 12, and going through menopause after age 55. Having had more menstrual cycles throughout a lifetime exposes a woman to more estrogen and progesterone.
Previous radiation to chest: women who had radiation to the chest for other cancers such as Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin lymphoma have a significantly higher risk.
There are lifestyle factors that can affect a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer,
- Having more than one drink per day
- Being overweight or obese
- Decreased physical activity
- Having children—having a first child after age 30 or not having had children
- Use of oral contraceptives or injectable shot
- Hormone therapy after menopause
CARING FOR AND SUPPORTING A LOVED ONE WITH BREAST CANCER
There are no magic words or formulas to take away the physical or emotional pain of breast cancer for a loved one. If your wife, sister, mother, daughter, friend, or anyone you care about has breast cancer, your support and positive interaction can only help.
Knowing what to do to help can be challenging. Most women hesitate to ask for help, nor will they give a specific answer if you ask them how you can help. Simply stating “Let me know if you need anything” is generally not a good idea. They will not call you to ask you to bring a meal. Being proactive, and simply telling them, “I am going to bring you and your family dinner tomorrow night. You can refuse if you like, but I really want to do this for you” is much more effective than asking “Can I bring you food?” Since their tastes may be limited or changed from treatment, be sure to ask if there is anything that is easier for them to eat, and that you would be glad to alter any recipe if that would help it be more palatable for them.
Other specific offerings include:
- Offering a ride to treatment/doctor’s appointments
- Taking their children for an afternoon/day
- Taking their laundry home with you and bringing it back clean
- Asking when the best time of day and best date for you to spend several hours cleaning her house, or simply taking care of small things she hasn’t been able to attend to around the house, like straightening, changing sheets, walking the dog, sorting the mail or washing the car.
- Bringing her a funny movie, and offering to watch it with her.
- Listening if she wants to talk, or simply being present if she doesn’t want to be alone.
- If she has a hobby, and she feels up to it, bring her the supplies and offer to help.
- Flowers always brighten the day.
Depending upon the individual, the following suggestions may be helpful:
- Offer to arrange for her to receive a massage from a qualified therapist. Some massage therapists offer home visits, so if she doesn’t feel like going out, one may come to her.
- If she has a clergy person she feels close to, she may like to have help arranging a visit.
- Local support groups can offer support that is unparalleled. Finding out what groups are offered, where, when and how to get there makes it easier for her to connect with others who are struggling or have struggled like she has.
- Taking a drive in the country or through a park.
- The adult coloring craze is taking off because it is known to reduce stress and offers an alternate focus. Offer to bring her a book and colored pencils if she doesn’t already have them.
- If she feels like reading, offer to go to the library or buy her the books of her choice. Libraries also offer popular books on CD, so if she prefers listening versus reading, offer to bring those to her. They can also be purchased, but typically cost more than books.
- Be aware that many people who are diagnosed with illness of any kind are often inundated with advice from well-meaning friends and family. Trust that her plan of care between her and her medical team is what she feels is best, unless she specifically asks you for advice.
Remaining aware of risk factors is important for any disease, cancer or otherwise. If your good health continues, but your loved one is suffering, your awareness of their needs will help them more than you know. Many people are avoided in their times of suffering because their family and friends don’t know what to say, so they say nothing. Simply acknowledging “I don’t know what to say” or “I don’t know what to do to help you,” can break down these walls and allow for open conversation. Just being there is important—we all need each other.
May good health and happiness be yours, and may it belong to your loved ones as well.