The Importance of Breast Cancer Awareness
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to raise awareness about a disease that will impact a staggering 1 in 8 women in the United States.
Signs of “Pinktober” are already cropping up everywhere, most notably the familiar pink ribbons that have come to symbolize breast cancer awareness.
This year’s campaign might be the most important one yet, as the Covid-19 pandemic caused major setbacks in people getting regular checkups and preventive screenings. The pandemic may have kept us home for a while, but cancer marches on.
Breast cancer by the numbers
Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in American women, behind skin cancers. It’s also the second leading cause of cancer death in women—only lung cancer kills more women each year.
According to the latest estimates by the American Cancer Society, more than 281,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in 2021. Tragically, an estimated 43,600 women will die from breast cancer this year alone.
Black women are more likely to die of breast cancer
In the past Black women had slightly lower rates of breast cancer than white women, but this gap is closing. Today, Black and white women have around the same incidence of breast cancer, yet Black women have a 40% higher death rate from the disease.
The numbers are even worse for Black women under age 50, who die from breast cancer at twice the rate of white women in the same age group. Hispanic and Latinx women are also more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at an earlier age and with more aggressive breast cancer.
The reasons for these disparities are complex, but lack of access to insurance, discrimination by healthcare workers, and poor quality of care are all factors.
Black women are more likely than white women to have inadequate health insurance or poor access to health care facilities, and this affects screening, follow-up care, and completion of therapy.
Black women and minorities also make up just 10-15% of the participants in breast cancer clinical trials. Which means they’re excluded from potentially life-saving breakthrough treatments. It also means researchers don’t fully understand how breast cancer treatments affect a huge percentage of women in the U.S.
Systemic inequality and racial discrimination are at the heart of the issue.
As the Center for American Progress put it: “[health disparities] are not a result of individual or group behavior but decades of systematic inequality in American economic, housing, and health care systems.”
Risk factors for breast cancer
Several factors put people at greater risk of developing breast cancer, including:
Being a woman
Women are much more likely to experience hormonal stimulation of vulnerable breast cells. It’s why breast cancer is much more common in women than in men.
The risk of breast cancer goes up with age. Most invasive breast cancers are found in women 55 or older.
Having a relative (especially a sister, mother, or daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer puts you at higher risk of developing the disease.
Hormonal birth control and hormone therapy can increase your risk of breast cancer. So can drinking alcohol (experts recommend no more than 1 drink per day for women), being overweight or obese, and not being physically active.
And as we’ve outlined, socioeconomic status, systemic inequality, and racial discrimination are also risk factors.
Steps you can take to lower your risk
While certain factors are out of your control—like your genes and sex—there are things you can do to reduce your estrogen exposure and lower your risk of developing breast cancer, including:
Maintaining a healthy weight
Knowing your risk factors
Understanding the warning signs of breast cancer
Breastfeeding your children, if possible
Asking your doctor about the risks of birth control and hormone therapy
Getting screened is a personal decision
Some medical professionals have been critical of the intense marketing behind breast cancer awareness. They cite concerns about the potential for overdiagnosis and overtreatment of breast cancer, pointing out that between 20% and 50% percent of women over age 40 who receive annual mammogram screenings experience at least one false alarm that leads to a breast biopsy.
But they also acknowledge that breast cancer screenings are a proven tool for early detection.
The decision to get screened is a personal one. Everyone has their own risk tolerance, and no two cancer diagnoses are exactly alike.
Talk to your doctor about your specific risk factors so you can make an informed decision about whether to get screened based on the best information available.
Learn more and support others
Your best ally is information. Learn more about breast cancer and understand your risk.
You can help underserved communities get access to care by donating to the Rally in Supporting Everyone (RISE) campaign.
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