Early detection key in fight against breast cancer

Published 9:13 am Saturday, October 15, 2022

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By Judy Stiles

It is October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month – and a time when pink ribbons seem to show up everywhere. While the pink ribbon may be pretty, nothing is pretty about breast cancer; any kind of cancer is cruel and ugly. But the pink ribbon is a worldwide symbol used to honor the millions of people who are in treatment or have suffered because of breast cancer, help increase education and awareness about breast cancer, bring attention to preventative steps for possible early detection and raise funds for cancer research.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the U.S., after skin cancer. It is the second deadliest cancer after lung cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that North Carolina will see an estimated 10,220 new cases of breast cancer and 1,450 deaths from breast cancer in 2022.

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Female death rates from breast cancer peaked in 1989 and have declined by 42 percent as of 2019 in the U.S. Early detection, medical advances and increased awareness have played a significant role in the decrease of deaths. Unfortunately, the death rate for black women remains 41 percent higher than in white women despite lower incidence, likely due to lack of health care access.

Mammograms – x-rays of the breast – are often the first screening a doctor will recommend. A mammogram can often detect cancer before symptoms show up, which gives more choices for treatment options.

The risk for breast cancer increases with age and most breast cancers occur in women 50 years or older. Women should consult with their physician on when is the best time to begin mammograms and how frequently they should take place.

Wendy Kelly, marketing director for The Outer Banks Hospital, confirmed in an email that the nationally accredited Outer Banks Hospital Development Council’s Breast Health Program provides free mammograms for women who meet the following criteria:

  • live or work in Dare County
  • are uninsured or have insurance that does not cover a mammogram
  • are 40 to 64 years of age with or without symptoms
  • are 39 years of age or younger with symptoms

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines the most common warning signs of breast cancer as:

  • New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
  • Pain in any area of the breast.

To detect some of these symptoms, doctors recommend that women should conduct breast self-exams. While the above warning signs may be explained by a number of factors, it is recommended to see a doctor if one of these symptoms appear.

The North Carolina Department of Health advises that regular exercise, avoiding alcohol, maintaining a healthy body weight and getting regular screenings are lifestyle changes that may decrease chances of getting breast cancer.

Some risk factors that cannot be changed include:

  • Getting older. The risk for breast cancer increases with age. Most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50.
  • Genetic mutations. Women who have inherited changes (mutations) to certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, are at higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
  • Reproductive history. Starting menstrual periods before age 12 and starting menopause after age 55 expose women to hormones longer, raising their risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Having dense breasts. Dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, which can sometimes make it hard to see tumors on a mammogram. Women with dense breasts are more likely to get breast cancer.
  • Personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases. Women who have had breast cancer are more likely to get breast cancer a second time. Some non-cancerous breast diseases such as atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ are associated with a higher risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Family history of breast or ovarian cancer. A woman’s risk for breast cancer is higher if she has a mother, sister or daughter (first-degree relative) or multiple family members on either her mother’s or father’s side of the family who have had breast or ovarian cancer. Having a first-degree male relative with breast cancer also raises a woman’s risk.
  • Previous treatment using radiation therapy. Women who had radiation therapy to the chest or breasts (for instance, treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma) before age 30 have a higher risk of getting breast cancer later in life.
  • Exposure to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES). DES was given to some pregnant women in the United States between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage. Women who took DES, or whose mothers took DES while pregnant with them, have a higher risk of getting breast cancer.

Breast cancer most often strikes women; however, men may also be diagnosed with breast cancer. The CDC reports that about one of every 100 breast cancer cases diagnosed in the U.S. are discovered in a man.