There is perhaps no disease that strikes greater fear in the hearts of women than breast cancer. It is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths, behind lung cancer, and the second-most-common form of cancer among women, behind skin cancer.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to honor the many who have died and to spread the word that early detection is key to preventing deaths. It’s an excellent time to have a mammogram or make an appointment to get one.
Screenings and treatments, however, have decreased dramatically since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Roughly one-third of women who should have had mammograms missed their annual screenings over the past 18 months, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
That is a deeply concerning statistic. Because of the sharp reduction in mammograms, doctors are now starting to find more advanced forms of breast cancer than normal.
Medical experts are urging women to be screened and to keep up any treatments and surgeries.
Breast cancer occurs when cells grow beyond their normal bounds. The cancer can then metastasize — that is, spread through the blood or lymph systems to other parts of the body.
The average age of diagnosis for breast cancer is 62, though experts recommend that women begin having annual mammograms at age 45, and as early as 40 for those with histories of breast cancer in their families.
Though the symptoms can range widely, some of the most common include:
• A lump, knot or thickening under the breast or in the underarm area.
• Swelling, redness or darkening of the breast.
• Change in a breast’s size or shape.
• An itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple.
• A pulling-in or retraction of the nipple or other parts of the breast.
In June 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Get Screened, No Excuses Law, which gives public employees four hours of paid leave per year for breast cancer screening and eliminates such obstacles as co-payments and annual deductibles. The measure also requires 210 hospitals and clinics to offer extended hours for screenings to help women who have difficulty scheduling mammograms during a typical 9-to-5 workday.
Screening is among the most important ways to prevent breast cancer, but there are other actions you can take to reduce your risk of developing it. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, a woman who exercises four hours per week reduces her risk. Eating a nutritious, low-fat diet can help. A diet high in fat increases the risk by triggering the hormone estrogen, which fuels tumor growth. So fill your plate with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Compared with non-drinkers, women who have one alcoholic drink a day have a very small increase in risk. Those who have two to five drinks daily, however, have about 1½ times the risk of women who don’t drink.
According to the women’s breast-feeding advocacy group La Leche League International, and the New York State Department of Health, studies confirm that breast-feeding reduces the risk of cancer. Research shows that the longer a woman breast-feeds, the more protected she is against the disease.
The American Cancer Society says that new technology to fight breast cancer is emerging, and that modern medicine’s understanding of the risk factors is also improving. Consulting with your doctor and being vigilant about your health are the most important actions that a woman can take.
The key is awareness. Know your body, and know your risks. Prevention and early detection are the best weapons in the battle against breast cancer.
Breast cancer resources
• Hewlett House, a nonprofit community learning resource center: 86 East Rockaway Road, Hewlett, (866) 411-CANCER (2262).
• The Adelphi NY Statewide Breast Cancer hotline: (800) 877-8077 or https://breast-cancer.adelphi.edu/. The American Cancer Society: (800) ACS-2345 (227-2345) or www.cancer.org.
• National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc.: www.nationalbreastcancer.org.
• National Cancer Institute: (800) 4-CANCER (422-6237) or www.cancer.gov.
• Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation help line: (877) GO KOMEN (465-6636) or firstname.lastname@example.org.