Cast your mind over some of the beloved females in your life: your mom, sisters, female cousins, aunts, best friends, bridesmaids and roommates. Now think of this startling statistic: In the United States, about one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. That’s why doctors want women to make sure they get that potentially life-saving cancer screening, despite the COVID-19 Delta variant causing anxiety about going into doctor’s offices again.
Although about 2,650 men are expected to be diagnosed this year with the disease as well, according to breastcancer.org, the number one risk factor is simply being a woman. Although age is the next big risk factor with the vast majority of diagnoses occurring in older women, the Centers for Disease Control reports that about 9 percent of new cases are found in women under 45.
“Unfortunately, the rates of breast cancer have been increasing in the US and globally even before COVID,” says Dr. Jennifer Yeong-Shin Sheng, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The global increase in breast cancer incidence is seen in all age groups and is highest in women under age 50.”
Younger women are at a higher risk if they have close relatives who were diagnosed with the disease when they were under 45 or if they have changes in breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA. According to the CDC, you could also be at higher risk if you’ve ever got one of those letters from your physician’s office telling you that you have dense breasts, which could make spotting tumors on a mammogram more difficult.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that if it’s caught early enough, breast cancer does not have to be a death sentence. In fact, we may have so many new diagnoses because more women are getting checked. In women over 50, the overall death rate from breast cancer decreased by 1 percent from 2013-2018, though it held steady in younger women.
“Breast cancer remains the leading cancer affecting all women, although the prognosis is of course improved with earlier detection,” says Dr. Robert Gabordi, BayCare breast oncology surgeon and medical director of breast program at St. Joseph’s Hospitals. “The incidence rate may be on the rise, which is indicative of improved screening and detection, although the mortality rate has not increased at the same pace, suggesting better clinical management of breast cancer patients.”
Of course, COVID-19 complicated everything. Medical offices had to stop doing screenings and mammograms, and even when they opened back up, many women were afraid to go in because they didn’t want to be exposed to the virus. Although most oncology centers did their best not to disrupt patients’ plans, many women who had already been diagnosed and were at the beginning of their cancer journey found that surgery and chemotherapy were postponed. For some, this led to the disease advancing in stage by the time they were able to get treated again.
Now that things have opened back up, it’s imperative that women schedule those annual exams and any screenings that their doctor recommends. Hospitals and health systems have put in place measures to protect patients, including temperature checks, screenings and requiring employees to be vaccinated.
“For breast cancer, early detection and treatment is key to improved survival and longer-term quality of life,” Dr. Sheng says.
Detecting cancer early could mean less invasive treatment with fewer side effects and a lower chance of recurrence. Once the cancer has spread, the scope of treatment can become more intense and invasive, which can itself cause health problems later.
“Do not delay mammography,” says Dr. Gabordi. “Breast cancer has an excellent prognosis when interventions occur early. It is important to remember that while mammography does not prevent cancer, it allows for earlier detection and that is the best screening tool we have. Simply put, early detection saves lives.”
Potential symptoms of breast cancer
- Nipple tenderness
- Lump or thickening in breast or underarm
- Dimpling or change in texture of skin on breast to resemble an orange peel
- Swelling or shrinkage of breast
- Nipple discharge
- Pain or discomfort in breast
- Inverted nipple
Keep in mind that one or more of these does not definitively mean that you have breast cancer. Nor is the opposite true: Breast cancer may not announce itself in any of these ways. The only way to know by sure is by screening. (Source: National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.)
Tips for Being Proactive
Although there are no sure-fire ways to prevent breast cancer, here are some suggestions that have proven to help with early detection or reduction of risk:
- Self-exams: Learn how to do a breast self-examination and report any suspicious results to your doctor.
- Investigate your family history of cancer by speaking to relatives. If you do find a pattern of cancer, you can speak to your doctor about genetic testing and counseling.
- Maintain a healthy weight and get plenty of physical activity.
- Make and keep your annual OB-GYN visit and do all the prescribed screenings.
Breast Cancer by the Numbers
5-10% of breast cancers are linked to inherited gene mutations
12% of all new cancer cases worldwide are breast cancer
85% of breast cancer occurs in women with no family history of it
43,600 women are expected to die in 2021 from breast cancer
3.8 million women in the United States have either had or are currently in treatment for breast cancer
Cover image courtesy of iStock by Getty Images by VectorStory.
*Originally published in the 2021 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.