By Dr. Leander Cannick III, MD, MBA, FAIM
A woman diagnosed with breast cancer today is more likely to survive her disease than she was in 1985, when Breast Cancer Awareness Month began. Women are more likely to discover the disease early, and they’re more likely to have better outcomes.
The very advent of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is part of the reason why. That’s been reassuring to me as a board-certified radiation oncologist and integrative medicine physician at AnMed.
But there’s much more work to be done.
Breast cancer remains the second-leading cause of cancer death for women, and it’s actually the leading cause of cancer death for Hispanic women. Black women have a higher rate of death from breast cancer than all other women.
The disease accounts for about a third of new female cancer diagnoses annually, regardless of race.
Overall, there’s a one-in-eight chance that a woman will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
And the disease isn’t completely limited to women. While about 42,000 women in the U.S. die each year from breast cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 500 men die from the disease each year, too.
Breast cancer impacts the lives of all people, regardless of nationality, age, race or gender. I have the privilege of participating in caring for women and men diagnosed with this disease. However, these people are much more than just cancer patients. They are mothers, fathers, sisters, daughters, wives and friends. They have busy lives that include taking care of family, work, volunteer activities and interesting hobbies.
They deserve our love and support.
Some risk factors for breast cancer are modifiable
First of all, while there is no way to totally prevent cancer, steps can be taken to lower the risk of cancer diagnosis. You can't change your age or family history, and those non-modifiable factors affect your risk, but you can adopt a healthy lifestyle to significantly reduce your risk.
Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, lack of physical activity and obesity will help immensely. Encourage and support others to do the same.
Understand that early detection is important for successful treatment and improved survival rates.
So perform regular self-exams to detect potential cancer development. People should talk to their doctors or other medical professionals face to face about how to do that.
Get regular screenings. Mammograms are the most effective tool in the fight against breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends screenings to begin at age 40 for average-risk women. For women at high risk for breast cancer, including those having a personal or family history of breast cancer or a genetic mutation known to increase risk, they should get a breast MRI and mammogram every year typically starting at age 30.
Encourage and support others to get screenings, too.
Encourage and support are a big part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month – for survivors and their families, and for those less fortunate.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time of commemorating courageous women and men who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. The journey of these amazing people is unique and special. But they do not travel this path alone. They are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone on before them, paving the way through participating in clinical trials, sharing their testimony and offering words of encouragement. We commemorate October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but we celebrate the lives of those impacted by breast cancer every day.
Visualize support by wearing pink during October.
Mobilize support by having a better understanding of the disease.
Breast cancer is common in all races and ethnicities
Breast cancer is a complex disease that originates in the cells of the breast tissue. The disease can present in various forms and stages.
After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the U.S. The incidence of breast cancer increases with age, with 62 being the median age of diagnosis.
The median age at diagnosis is slightly younger for Black women – 60 years old compared to 63 for white women.
And Black women have the highest death rate from breast cancer. This is thought to be partially because about one in five Black women with breast cancer have more aggressive triple-negative breast cancer, more than any other racial or ethnic group.
Even men get the disease. The CDC estimates that 2,100 men in the U.S. are diagnosed breast cancer every year.
Breast cancer treatments vary, and then there’s more after treatment
Treatment of breast cancer varies depending on the type and stage of the cancer. Common treatments include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy.
The best treatment is done with a multidisciplinary team of physicians and nurses as well as other health care providers. Integrative treatment options are also available and include massage, prayer, meditation, stress management, movement therapy, dance and art journaling.
Acupuncture has been shown in many trials to improve the side effects of breast-change treatment, effects such as pain, fatigue and nausea. Yoga has been shown to improve the overall quality of life, fatigue and emotional functioning of breast-cancer survivors.
After completing breast-cancer treatment, individuals typically enter a phase known as survivorship. This phase is characterized by ongoing monitoring, follow-up care and adjustments to life after treatment.
During follow-up appointments, doctors might order imaging tests such as mammograms or MRIs, and blood tests to ensure that there is no recurrence of cancer and to monitor overall health.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle is important for maintaining overall wellbeing. This includes a balanced diet, regular exercise, stress management, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
Every individual's experience after breast cancer treatment is unique. It's important that survivors maintain open communication with their care teams and address concerns or questions that arise during the journey.
Breast cancer survival rate has improved significantly
Thankfully, it’s a journey that has more attention and support than it used to have. Breast Cancer Awareness Month helps.
Not only has the month of awareness campaigns increased active support for all who deal with the disease, but it has also increased important early detections.
The outlook for breast-cancer patients has improved significantly in recent years. The five-year combined survival rate for all stages of breast cancer is now approximately 90%.
Quick, simple searches turn up numerous local support groups, counseling services and programs for financial assistance.
Call 864-512-4636 or visit anmed.org/services/cancer-care/support to learn more about the broad range of help that’s available.
Visit anmed.org/services/cancer-care/types/breast to learn more about breast cancer and its care.
My first encounter with breast cancer occurred as a child. I had an aunt who was diagnosed with what I now understand was metastatic breast cancer. She went on to pass away from her disease. I will always remember the impact that had on my family and how it made me feel.
Overshadowing those sad memories, though, are the wonderful times we had to share with her. And she was so courageous and loving through her fight. I think she’d be proud that I now help the people and the families and friends who battle the disease.