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Published on October 24, 2017

October is breast cancer awareness

Consider the Facts During Breast Cancer Awareness Month

By Lauren O’Brien, MD, Avera Medical Group Marshall

When the air gets cooler and the trees get more colorful, I know my patients are reminded of October and its special place in the health care calendar.

When we look at the importance of awareness, it’s great to see how widespread the message of breast cancer during this month. It’s a starting point, but we want the message of this month to be universal.

I hope to share with you some perspective on what I usually talk with patients about when it comes to breast cancer and encourage you to get appointments scheduled. We can do much more with regular checkups, screening mammograms and other regular interactions.

Exams are Conversations

A lot of focus for breast cancer is family history and looking specifically at specific genetic disorders and genes. This review is a big part of the meetings I have with women.

While establishing that history and verifying possible genetic warning signs of breast cancer, there are other risk factors that can often be overlooked.

I try to highlight some of these risks with my patients. I encourage you to consider them and talk to your doctor as well. One is increasing age; breast cancer does become more predominant as you get older, as this breakdown from the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) program from 2011-13 shows:

  • Less than 49 - (1 in 53 women)
  • Age 50 to 69 - (1 in 44 women)
  • Age 60 to 69 - (1 in 29 women)
  • Age 70 and older - (1 in 15 women)

Overall, one in eight women will face breast cancer in their lifetimes. That math can be frightening, but it does remind all of us of the importance of keeping regular with the steps we can take to fight it.

Other Risk Factors

Women who begin their periods early or who enter menopause later in life are found to have an increased risk as well. The same facts apply to women who have their first pregnancy later in life or who have never been pregnant. Studies also have shown that ethnicity plays a role in cancer rates, with Caucasian woman having the highest rates of breast cancer. Unfortunately, African American women with cancer more often seek medical attention or present the disease at advanced stages. They also face a higher mortality rate compared to other races.

Weight Loss Can Help

Overall, women who have a body mass index (BMI) that is greater than 30 are classified as obese are have higher rates of getting cancer – and of dying of it.

And it’s not just breast cancer; diabetes, hypertension, stroke and heart attack risks all are higher with heavier women. When it comes to breast cancer, women with higher BMI experience an increased risk of postmenopausal breast cancer, particularly estrogen receptor positive cancer. This higher rate may be due to the increased levels of peripheral estrogen precursors that are stored within the fat cells themselves that then convert to higher levels of estrogen within the body.

Studies also have shown an association between increased breast density and risk of breast cancer. Other factors that are still being researched can be related to hormone levels of androgens, testosterone, insulin and diabetes.

Some risk factors are those you can change. A big one is alcohol – one drink a day or more, especially in postmenopausal females on hormone therapy, can bring about a higher chance of cancer. Tobacco use, particularly smoking, is another behavior that can lead to disease.

If you drink or smoke, consider the resources available to help you change those habits – it could literally save your life. Regular exercise has been proven beneficial for overall wellbeing and health, and it helps fight breast cancer as well.

As physicians, we are in our profession to help you – so ask your breast-cancer questions and together we can devise a personalized and “best for you” plan to help you avoid this disease.

Live Better. Live Balanced. Avera.

Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

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