October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and while much of the media attention and social media posting focuses on activities and fundraising, one of the most important objectives for the observance is right in the title: awareness. Nearly a quarter of a million U.S. women get breast cancer each year and more than 40,000 women die from the disease. Next to skin cancer, it is the most common form of cancer for women. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, most women who get breast cancer have no known risk factors and no history of the disease in their families.

In fact, many women who get breast cancer have no signs or symptoms. Here is a list of common red flags that might be a warning sign for breast cancer or some other health condition that should be discussed with a physician.

  • New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
  • Pain in any area of the breast.

Who is most at risk?

Most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older. But breast cancer can occur in younger women, too – about 10% of all new cases occur in women under 45 years of age. And it is not a cancer exclusive to women: although much less common, it can be found in men too. It is estimated that less than 1% of breast cancers occur in men.

Even if you are a man or a young woman at low risk, it’s still important to have high awareness of the facts, the risks, the symptoms and the best ways to detect breast cancer early. Spouses, moms, sisters, aunts, colleagues and friends all could be affected: “Based on current incidence rates, 12.4% of women born in the United States today will develop breast cancer at some time during their lives.” That’s about 1 women in 8. If not you, it is likely to affect someone that you know.

Breast cancer prevention and detection

Many health experts recommend that women who are 50 to 74 years old should have mammogram every one to two years. Women who are 40 to 49 years old should discuss when to start and how often to get a screening mammogram with their physicians. All women are at risk for breast and cervical cancer, but regular screenings can prevent these diseases or find them early.

There’s some debate about breast self examinations because they are not a reliable screening method. But many health care providers recommend monthly breast self-examinations because they are a way that women can familiarize themselves with what’s normal for their body so that changes or abnormalities can be detected early. It should be noted that if changes occur, those should be discussed with a doctor, but not all changes are lumps are cancerous. The Mayo Clinic offers information on how to do a breast self-examination.

Besides early detection, is there a way to prevent breast cancer or lower your risk? The CDC says:

Many factors over the course of a lifetime can influence your breast cancer risk. You can’t change some factors, such as getting older or your family history, but you can help lower your risk of breast cancer by taking care of your health in the following ways.

Additional Resources

American Cancer Society: Breast Cancer – Whether you or a loved one are worried about developing breast cancer, have just been diagnosed, are going through breast cancer treatment, or are trying to stay well after treatment, this detailed information can help you find the answers you need.

National Cancer Institute: Breast Cancer – Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women after skin cancer. Mammograms can detect breast cancer early, possibly before it has spread. Explore the links on this page to learn more about breast cancer prevention, screening, treatment, statistics, research, clinical trials, and more.

Centers for Disease Control: Breast Cancer – Facts information and resources.

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