Since 1985, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month has taken place every October to educate people about breast cancer, specifically how women can protect themselves from it by focusing on early detection. Everywhere you look throughout the month, you can expect to see pink, the official color of this important effort, from pink ribbons and pink flamingos to entire buildings awash in pink lighting. Even professional football players are wearing pink gloves and shoes!
Statistically, the median age for a patient to receive a diagnosis of breast cancer is 60 years old, with more than 40 percent of the diagnoses occurring in women 65 and older. Overall, women in the United States have about a 12 percent risk of getting breast cancer at some point in their lives. As you age, however, the risk steadily increases. For example, at 40 the likelihood that you will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the following 10 years is about one diagnosis per 68 women or 1.47 percent. By the time you reach 60, however, that risk more than doubles to one in 28 (3.56 percent).
Despite the risks, though, many women over 70 simply aren’t aware of several key facts, which is why Breast Cancer Awareness Month is so important. For example, according to a study conducted in England, two-thirds of respondents believe that women of all ages are equally at risk for developing breast cancer. Meanwhile, fewer than half of all women over 70 could name a single symptom of breast cancer, other than a lump in the breast.
Education = Early Detection
Part of the overall awareness campaign during this month is an effort to educate older women so they keep an eye out for symptoms other than a lump, including noticeable changes involving the areola or nipple, as well as changes to the skin or the shape of the breast. While these may not always lead to a breast cancer diagnosis, it’s important for you to see your doctor and discuss these issues if you see them.
Fortunately, if it’s caught early, breast cancer is a highly treatable form of cancer and in some ways, there are advantages to having a few more years behind you. For example, older women are less likely to need radiation and chemotherapy as part of the treatment after a lumpectomy is performed. This is mainly because of the specific types of breast cancer they tend to develop. In fact, research has shown that women over 70 who develop small, estrogen-sensitive tumors might not need radiation after a lumpectomy at all and often don’t require chemotherapy either.
As they age, many women unfortunately develop a false sense of security that, at a certain point, they have “gotten past it.” While the ways in which breast cancer affects your body changes as you get older, that doesn’t mean you ever really outgrow the risk. It’s essential that you continue performing your self-evaluations and see your doctor regularly. At some point, your doctor may inform you that mammograms are no longer required, so keep an open line of communication with your physician.
So as you reflect on what National Breast Cancer Awareness Month means to you and your family, remember that aging doesn’t mean you can start ignoring it. Remember, early detection is still the key to protecting yourself from breast cancer.