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Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

October is breast cancer awareness month and the pink ribbons are flying.  Through the efforts of the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and various other agencies and corporations, female breast cancer rates have decreased substantially in the past two decades.  

Breast cancer, however, is still the second leading cause of cancer death in women, exceeded only by lung cancer.  The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be close to 232,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer and over 60,000 cases of carcinoma in situ (CIS), the earliest form of breast cancer, diagnosed in the year 2015.  In addition, approximately, 40,000 women will die from breast cancer this year.  Survival rates, however, are on the rise. Currently, there are more than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.  Understanding the risk factors and getting screened is the key to survival. 

According to the American Cancer Society, risk factors fall into two major categories: 

1) risk factors not related to personal choice  and  2) life-style related risk factors. 

There are some things over which we have no control, these are the risk factors not related to personal choice. 

Those factors include:

1) Simply being a woman.  Breast cancer is about 100 times more common women than men.  This is most likely due to higher levels of estrogen and progesterone in women.

2) Growing old.  Your risk of developing breast cancer increases as you age.  About 2 out of 3 invasive breast cancers are found in women age 55 and older.

3) Genetics.  About 5-10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, the direct result of a gene defects inherited from a parent.

4) Family history of breast cancer.  Have one first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer approximately doubles a woman’s risk.  Having two first-degree relatives increases her risk 3-fold.

5) Personal history of breast cancer.  A woman diagnosed with breast cancer has an increased risk of developing a new cancer in the other breast or in another part of the same breast.

6) Race and ethnicity.  White women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than are African-American women. Asian, Hispanic, and Native American women are at lower risk than both whites and African-Americans.

7) Dense breast tissue.  Women with more glandular and fibrous tissue in their breasts and less fatty tissue are said to have dense breasts.  Women with dense breasts, have a breast cancer risk that is 1.2 to 2 times that of women with average breast density. 

8) Early periods and late menopause.  Women who have had more periods because they started menstruating before age 12 or went through menopause after age 55, have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.

9) Radiation exposure.  If a woman received radiation treatments to her chest as a child or young adult, her risk of breast cancer is increased.

Lifestyle choices also play a role in breast cancer risk. Those choices include:

1) Having children. Women who have never been pregnant or give birth to their first child after age 35 have a slightly higher overall risk.

2) Birth control.  Women who use birth control pills have a greater risk of breast cancer than women who never used them. (The risk decreases if the pill is discontinued.)

3) Hormone therapy after menopause.  Studies indicate that using hormone therapy that incorporates estrogen and progesterone increases the risk of getting breast cancer.

4) Breastfeeding.  Some studies suggest that breastfeeding may slightly lower the breast cancer risk, especially if it is continued for 1 ½ to 2 years.

5) Drinking alcohol.  Drinking alcohol is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.  The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed.  Those who have 2 to 5 drinks daily, have about 1 ½ times the risk of women who don’t drink alcohol.

6) Being overweight or obese.  Being overweight after menopause increases the breast cancer risk.  Before menopause, ovaries produce the majority of estrogen.  After menopause, most of a woman’s estrogen comes from fat tissue.  The more fat a person has, the more likely the estrogen levels will be elevated which then puts a person at risk for breast cancer.

7) Physical activity.  A Women’s Health Initiative study suggested that as little 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking reduced a woman’s risk of breast cancer by 18%.  Walking 10 hours per week reduced the risk even more.

Besides knowing your personal risk factors, it is also important to get screened for breast cancer.  Three tests are used by health care providers to screen for breast cancer:  mammograms, clinical breast exams and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) in women with a high risk of breast cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most women who are 50 to 74 should have a screening mammogram every two years.  If you are younger, or think you may have a higher risk, consult your doctor.  He or she may recommend an earlier screening.

For more information about breast cancer risks, symptoms, screening, and treatments, connect with the American Cancer Society at, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at or the National Cancer Institute at 

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at or 585-335-4327.

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