“Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” marked in countries across the world every October, is a month of educational and fundraising events orchestrated to promote increased awareness and support of the disease, as well as raising funds for further research. While there are on-going advancements in the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of breast cancer, much work remains to be done to further promote the importance of understanding personal risk and regular screenings for early detection.
The two most significant risk factors for breast cancer are being a woman and getting older. Women in the United States have a 12% lifetime risk of being diagnosed with the disease. It becomes much more prevalent in women aged 60 and older, making it the second-most common form of cancer among women. The good news is, with early detection, a 5-year relative survival rate can be as high as 98%.
As women approach their senior years, there seems to be a tendency to drop regular screening as a preventative measure. They may no longer be “invited” to participate in yearly screenings, or they may feel mammograms are no longer necessary at an older age.
While the statistics on breast cancer are relatively uniform, the recommendations for screenings are ambiguous. According to The American Cancer Society, testing should begin at the age of 45 and continue yearly as long as you are healthy. Another approach is that of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommending mammograms begin at the age of 50 and continue every two years until the age of 74.
It is essential for all women, including women who are aging, to educate themselves in knowing the risk factors for the disease and what preventive measures can be taken to ensure their best “breast health.” With this knowledge, you are in a better position to schedule screenings that may not fall within the “recommended” schedule should symptoms develop. So, how can you or your loved one remain cancer-free or beat the odds if they are diagnosed? Like many other diseases, lifestyle has a significant impact on breast cancer susceptibility.
Breast Cancer Prevention
Maintain a Healthy Diet: Eat your fruits and vegetables. Harvard researchers found that women who ate foods with high carotenoid levels had a much lower risk of breast cancer than those who didn’t.
Keep Moving: Obesity is a risk factor. Current guidelines recommend exercising for at least 150 minutes a week. Recent studies have shown that postmenopausal women who are twice as active (at least 300 minutes a week or 45 minutes a day) are more successful at reducing fat levels linked to breast cancer later in life.
Don’t Smoke: Smoking increases an older woman’s (particularly pre-menopausal women) chances of acquiring health conditions such as stroke, heart disease, and several cancers, including breast cancer. Secondary smoke is a consideration as well, so ask smokers to light up outside.
Limit Alcohol Consumption: The general recommendation is to limit the use of alcohol to one drink a day, as even small amounts can increase risks.
Beware of Hormone Therapy (HT): Hormone therapy was once widely prescribed as a method of reducing hot flashes for women during menopause. Research has identified a relationship between these medications and risk factors in heart disease and breast cancer. Physicians today are more likely to prescribe smaller doses for short periods. Speak with your physician about the risks and benefits for you.
Know Your Breast Cancer Risk Factors
There are some factors that we cannot control, like age, sex, or family history. Knowing which factors apply to you will help you understand your risks. The following indicators increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. Do keep in mind that most women may have one or two of the risk factors and never develop breast cancer.
- Age 60 years or older
- Family history of breast cancer
- First menstrual period before the age of 12
- Menopause at the age of 55 or older
- First childbirth after 35
- No children
- Dense breasts
- Taking hormone therapy for symptoms of menopause
Recognize The Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Many women believe that changes in their bodies are to be expected and are a natural part of aging. This is true, to an extent. However, this belief results in many illnesses, including breast cancer, which often goes undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. The simple rule is not to ignore any symptoms because you feel they are “insignificant” or a “normal” part of aging.
It is recommended that women of all ages perform self-examinations. It is essential to inspect the breasts physically and visually every month. Self-exams allow the opportunity to be familiar with your own body and the ability to recognize any changes should they occur. If you or your loved one is not comfortable or unable to do this, then a regularly scheduled breast exam with a physician should be maintained. Some signs and symptoms are:
- A lump on the breast
- Discharge from the nipple
- Swelling and soreness
- Redness of the skin
- Skin dimpling
- Swelling in the underarm
If you have noticed any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor or let a caregiver know you have observed these changes so the appropriate care can be provided.
Treatment For Older Women
Older women may have particular challenges and concerns around breast cancer treatment, including whether or not to even have them. Breast cancer treatment has vastly improved over the last 30 years, in their effectiveness and the management of side effects; however, treatment can be tricky, even life-threatening for some.
Treatment for diagnosed breast cancer can take many approaches depending on the stage of the disease. Radiation, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy are the most common forms of treatment. Surgery for some will be recommended in the form of a lumpectomy or mastectomy, depending on how aggressive the cancer may be.
The first thing to consider is the overall health of the prospective patient. Some treatments are easier on the body than others. For a woman who has advanced congestive heart failure, diabetes, or is exceptionally frail, treatments and side effects should be carefully considered. An active and relatively healthy 80-year-old may tolerate surgery or chemotherapy and enjoy many more years of life.
Some of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself, your daughters, and granddaughters are to stay vigilant regarding breast cancer awareness and recommended screenings for early detection as you get older. A woman’s risk of breast cancer nearly doubles if she has a first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. It is essential for all women to know their family history regarding breast cancer and to discuss this history when planning appropriate screening schedules.