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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Ginnetti-Barrasso

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Right now, breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women. There will be an estimated 266,120 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in US women just this year, according to data collected from the ACS.

The encouraging news: it has become less deadly. The death rate for female breast cancer has declined by 39% since its peak in 1989. In 2018, there are more than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States, & survival rates continue to climb due to better treatments and screenings. Cancer education & screenings can save up to 37 lives every day - with women more knowledgable about warning signs, the importance of self-exams, treatment options and second opinions, they are better prepared than ever before to confront a breast cancer diagnosis – something an estimated one in eight women will do in her lifetime.

11 important facts about breast cancer

1. Men can get breast cancer too.

Yes, you read that right. Although it is not as common, it does happen. It's about 100 times more common in women than it is in men. There will be an estimated 2,550 of male breast cancer in the US in 2018, according to the ACS.

2. Lumps are the most common breast cancer symptom

Lumps are the most common symptom of breast cancer, according to the ACS. If a breast cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, it may cause lumps and swelling around the collarbone or under your arm, even if the original tumor in the breast is still too small to be felt. Always get a lump checked out - it's better to be safe than sorry!

3. Skin changes and pain

Other symptoms that may also signal breast cancer, including: breast swelling; breast or nipple pain; the nipple turning inward; red, scaly, or thickening breast or nipple skin; and any nipple discharge that's not breast milk.

4. Mammograms aren't perfect, but don't skip them

Mammograms have been at the center of heated debate lately. Some people hold fast to the claim that the screening test, which is meant to catch breast cancer early using x-ray imaging, saves lives. Other news articles, citing newer research, argue there's no evidence mammography prevents breast cancer deaths. Either way - why take the chance? Get your mammogram!

5. Some women might need additional screening tests

Mammography is currently the only FDA-approved test to screen for breast cancer, but some women may also get breast ultrasounds or MRIs in addition to mammograms. Ultrasound can be used as a supplemental screening tool, especially in women with dense breast tissue, & MRI is primarily used for screening in women considered to be at high risk for breast cancer, such as those who carry the BRCA mutation or other genes that increase the risk of breast cancer.

6. Breast self-awareness over breast self-exams

Doctors used to urge women to do breast self-exams to hunt for potentially problematic lumps, but that advice has since fallen out of favor. Experts now recommend an approach called breast self-awareness. It's a lot like watching your moles for potential signs of skin cancer. Get to know how your breasts normally look and feel and keep an eye out for changes, but don't feel like you need to perform self-exams on a rigid schedule, especially if doing so might make you anxious. Just make sure you're getting breast exams at your yearly check-up with a doctor, and see a doctor if you notice any concerning changes.

7. The two biggest risk factors for breast cancer are out of your control

There are plenty of risk factors that can influence your odds of developing breast cancer - but it's good to remember that the most important ones are out of our personal control. The biggest risk factors for breast cancer in this country are being a woman and getting older — something we are all doing.

8. There are some lifestyle habits that can influence your breast cancer risk

Drinking alcohol, being overweight or obese, being sedentary, using hormone therapy during not having children, and not breastfeeding can all increase breast cancer risk according to the ACS. Remember: avoiding these risk factors doesn't mean you'll be immune to breast cancer. All women are at risk.

9.Most women diagnosed with breast cancer don't have it in their family

Some women may think they're not at risk for breast cancer if no one else in their family has had it. Unfortunately, that's just not true. A family history increases your risk, but the majority of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer now don't even have it in their families.

10. Some people have genetic mutations that increase breast cancer risk

Some people carry genetic mutations that can increase their odds of getting breast cancer. Research estimates that 71% of women with the BRCA1 and 69% of women with the BRCA2 mutations will develop breast cancer before age 80, while only 12% of women in the general population will get the disease during their lives, the National Cancer Institute explains. Some other, less common gene mutations are also associated with varying increased risk for breast cancer, including CHEK2, ATM, and TP53.

A doctor may recommend testing for these mutations if you have certain risk factors, like a family history of breast cancer. Women who do have a mutation may undergo increased screening, take certain medications, or consider preventive surgery like a mastectomy, which can reduce the risk of breast cancer development.

11. At home genetic testing

Even though direct-to-consumer genetic tests are growing in popularity, results can be difficult to interpret without the proper context and help from an expert, particularly a genetic counselor. One of the challenges with genetic testing is you don't always get a positive or negative result. It's not always that you have the mutation or you don't. Bottom line: go to your doctor for genetic testing for breast cancer. The results most definitely need to be interpreted in the context of family history and some form of counseling.

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