Every October, as the leaves are turning shades of red and orange, the rest of the world turns pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Thirty-one days of pink-sprinkled everything may seem more like a symbol than substance, but when you see it everywhere from the foil top on your favorite yogurt to the cleats on your favorite football player’s feet, that color begins to get our attention. It acts as a highlighter, reminding us not to skim past the terrible reality that 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. 1 in 8. The next time you’re chatting about a hot new bestseller at book club or enjoying a much-needed girls’ night out, look around at your friends. Odds are, at least one of you will have to fight breast cancer at some point. Maybe it’s already happened.
If that statistic has you glancing around for the closest appropriate place to perform a self-breast exam, that’s the reason we need Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s about more than just tying a pink ribbon around an ugly truth…it’s a gentle, rose-colored reminder that until we know more about how to actually prevent breast cancer, our best defense against it is early detection.
All the Difference
How much of a difference can early detection make? While unfortunately there are no guarantees when it comes to cancer, catching it sooner rather than later can truly make ALL the difference:
- The 5-year relative survival rate for women with Stage 0 or Stage I breast cancer is close to 100%.
- The 5-year relative survival rate for women with Stage IV (metastatic) breast cancer is only about 22%.
That second bullet point is heartbreaking, but the first one is an incredibly encouraging call to action. And action is exactly what is needed to help improve the odds.
One of the biggest obstacles to timely diagnosis is the perception that if we’re young, and we’re free from red flag genetic markers, we’re probably pretty safe.
It’s true that age is a huge factor, which is why traditionally, mammograms aren’t recommended until at least the age of 40. While just 5% of women diagnosed with breast cancer are under 40, it’s SO important not to use age as grounds to dismiss signs and symptoms. Of course we already know that early detection equals more options for treatment, which is honestly enough reason to pay attention to absolutely anything and everything that might be something. On top of that, though, breast cancer in younger women can be extremely aggressive, so even though it’s rare, it’s especially urgent to fight back when it does happen.
In some cases, fertility may be affected by breast cancer and the associated treatments, which can be a particularly bitter addition to already awful news for women who have not had a baby yet but hoped to in the future.
Genetic testing can be useful, absolutely, but since around 85% of breast cancer occurs in women with no family history of the disease, getting good news about your genes doesn’t mean you should let your guard down.
The Most Dangerous Thing You Can Do
There have been a lot of studies (and even more speculations) about breast cancer prevention. Some of the recommendations are pretty common sense…eating well and exercising appear to reduce the chance of a breast cancer diagnosis, while smoking and drinking alcohol appear to increase it. However, with emerging risk factors ranging from the chemicals in sunscreen to nighttime light exposure, we literally have something to worry about around the clock.
Even if your family medical history is cancer-free back to the beginning of time, and even if you could somehow manage to avoid every single product and habit and environmental element that might be of concern, there’s still no guarantee that you won’t get breast cancer. The most dangerous thing you can do is assume that you’re safe and do nothing.
We know. Things just got a little dark for a second there. We’re all about looking on the bright side, but when being mindful and informed could literally save your life, we’ll risk being a Debbie Downer every time.
Self-Breast Exams: Study Up
So that’s the bad news...that there’s really nothing you can do to completely eliminate the risk of breast cancer that we are aware of today. The good news, though, is that there’s a lot you can do to watch out for it, and to be prepared if the worst should happen and you are part of the 12% of women who will be diagnosed.
Most of us know about self-breast exams, but it’s estimated that only 20-30% of women are performing them as recommended. If you’re one of the 70-80% who lets that part of your monthly routine slide, we hope you’ll rethink it. Most of us simply forget, because life is busy and often stressful, and the last thing we want to do when we finally hop into a hot shower is think about cancer. Since 40% of diagnosed breast cancer is detected via self-examination, though, it’s pretty darn important.
The easiest way to get yourself on track is to set a recurring reminder on your calendar, because let’s face it, no one’s memory really works anymore without help from a smartphone. If you need a refresher on how and when you should be checking yourself for warning signs, check out the National Breast Cancer Foundation. You can also request free informational guides while you’re on their website.
Self-exams are crucial, but they’re just part of the equation. Annual clinical exams and diagnostic screening via mammograms and MRIs are also vital tools for detection. The benefits of these tests depend on age and risk levels, so it’s important to discuss options with your doctor. However—and this is particularly applicable to younger women—it’s also important to get a second opinion if your doctor is too quick to dismiss your fear that something might be wrong.
You Don’t Have to Do This Alone
If you’re already living with breast cancer, or if someone close to you is, all this talk of potential prevention and early detection might feel pretty empty. There’s no way make your battle easy…we know that. We’d like to share a few suggested sources of support, though, because no matter how strong you are (and you’re SO strong), you shouldn’t try to go through this on your own.
Susan G. Komen is probably the first name you think of in association with breast cancer awareness, and for good reason. This nonprofit organization has been around since 1982 and is dedicated to battling breast cancer from every angle. Through research, education, community health advocacy, and public policy initiatives, Susan G. Komen hopes to cut the current number of breast cancer deaths in half by 2026. Whether you’re looking for detailed information about risk factors and treatment options or a full spectrum of authentic personal stories, you’ll be able to find it on their website.
Reach to Recovery, a program powered by the American Cancer Society, can connect you with trained volunteers who have survived breast cancer and want to use their experience in a positive way. These volunteers can’t provide medical guidance but they can be there for you, and with you, through all the dark days. Some say that the most difficult part of a cancer diagnosis is watching the people you love react to it. The desire to protect those closest to you from pain often means holding in fear and anger and questions until your heart is so heavy you can hardly stand up, so having someone on the edge of it all to share your journey with can be incredibly helpful.
There are also many, many blogs on the topic…go HERE for a few suggestions.
Before You Think You Need It
A breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed in her early thirties told us, “I really wish I had gotten life insurance before my diagnosis.”
When your life flashes before your eyes, it’s easy to see why life insurance might be a good idea. It can be a lot harder and much more expensive to find coverage on the other side of that flash, though, which is why we recommend looking into affordable coverage even if you think you don’t need it yet. There are options for guaranteed acceptance life insurance and life insurance with no medical exam, but a level term life insurance policy while you’re young and healthy is usually a much simpler route.
Activate Your Awareness
This October, we challenge you to turn awareness into action. Whether it’s buying a pink paper ribbon at the grocery store to support breast cancer research or holding your best friend’s hand during her first chemo treatment, let’s all DO something.
And let’s learn something. How to take better care of ourselves. How to take better care of each other. How to combat fearfulness with mindfulness, and how to be angry because we deserve to be and graceful because we deserve that, too. And next month, when all the pinkness isn’t there to remind us to keep fighting, let’s do it anyway.