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October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Beverly Miller

Beverly Miller, MHA, MBA, Acting Area Director

Indian Health Service California Area Office


October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and even though we may be used to seeing those pink ribbons around this time of year, what does it really mean? The World Cancer Research Fund International reports that there are more than 6 million breast cancer survivors worldwide, giving many survivors a reason to celebrate this month. Despite so many medical advances in the detection and treatment of breast cancer though, it still remains the second leading cause of deaths among women in the United States. About 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.

It's important for us to understand that although there is a familial link, less than 15% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with it. So even if no one else in the family has been diagnosed, regular screening is still important.

Although American Indian and Alaska Native women have a lower breast cancer incidence rate compared to other groups, those who develop breast cancer are more often diagnosed at a later stage, when it is harder to treat. This is likely due to the fact that AI/AN women have the lowest rates of mammography screening starting at age 40. Regular mammography screening allows doctors to identify and diagnose breast cancer at an early stage, when treatment is far more effective. "Mammography screening is not perfect but has been shown to markedly reduce the number of women each year who die from breast cancer," said Elizabeth Morris, MD, FACR, president of the Society of Breast Imaging. "The decision whether or not to get a mammogram remains with women. We want them to know that mammography can detect cancer early -- when it's most treatable and can be treated less invasively -- which not only saves lives but helps preserve quality of life."

According to the Food and Drug Administration, more than 39 million mammograms are performed annually in the United States. Due to these early detection and screening efforts, the breast cancer death rate is down 34% since 1990. Breast cancer incidence rates in the U.S. also began decreasing in the year 2000, after increasing for the previous two decades. They dropped by 7% from 2002 to 2003 alone. One theory is that this decrease was partially due to the reduced use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) by women after the results of a large study called the Women’s Health Initiative were published in 2002. These results suggested a connection between HRT and increased breast cancer risk.

Early Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer in Women:

  • changes in the shape of the nipple
  • breast pain doesn't go away after your next period
  • a new lump that doesn’t go away after your next period
  • nipple discharge from one breast that is clear, red, brown, or yellow
  • unexplained redness, swelling, skin irritation, itchiness, or rash on the breast
  • swelling or a lump around the collarbone or under the arm

According to the American Cancer Society, "breast cancer is about 100 times less common among men Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving than among women. For men, the lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000. The number of breast cancer cases in men relative to the population has been fairly stable over the last 30 years".

Please see your doctor for a complete evaluation if you experience any of these signs and symptoms.

Here are some links for more information on the subject:

National Cancer Institute -  Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving

American Indian and Alaska Native Women's health -  Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving

Native American Cancer Research Corporation -  Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving

American Cancer Society: Breast Cancer  Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving