Public awareness programs such as Breast Cancer Awareness Week and Breast Cancer Awareness Day can help decrease the occurrence of breast cancer as well as save and prolong lives. Decreasing breast cancer rates is vital because it is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women. It is estimated that the disease will claim the lives of approximately 40,970 women and 460 men in 2006.
Early Detection is the Key to Saving Lives
Because the cause of breast cancer is unknown, it is difficult to predict who will develop the disease and when it will occur. One of the best defenses against dying from the disease is using screening examinations to discover the disease before it has started to cause symptoms. Breast cancers that have formed a lump that can be felt tend to be larger and are likelier to have spread beyond the breast. However, breast cancers that are found during screening examinations are more likely to be smaller and confined to the breast. Most doctors believe that early detection tests save thousands of lives each year.
Mammograms and clinical breast examinations are the best methods for detecting breast cancer in its earliest stage. A mammogram is an x-ray of the breasts using equipment that is specifically designed for breast imaging. There are two types of mammograms: (1) a diagnostic mammogram that is used to diagnose disease in women who are experiencing breast symptoms; and (2) a screening mammogram that is used to detect (or rule out) disease in women who have no symptoms. A mammogram can only detect abnormal areas within the breast. To confirm the existence of cancer a biopsy in which a small amount of tissue is removed from the abnormal area must be performed. The tissue is then examined under a microscope.
A doctor, nurse practitioner, nurse, or doctor's assistant performs clinical breast examinations. During this examination, the health care practitioner looks at the breasts to determine any changes in size or shape. Then the practitioner uses the pads of the fingers to gently feel the breasts to determine the shape and textures of the breasts, the location of any lumps, and whether the lumps are under the skin or embedded in deeper tissue.
Because breast cancer is more common in women age 40 and older, with 80% of all breast cancers being diagnosed in women over 50, it is important that women who are 40 and older have an annual mammogram for as long as they are healthy. Women over 40 should also have a clinical breast examination every year. Younger women (20-39 year olds) should practice breast care by having a clinical breast examination every 3 years. They may also choose to practice breast self-examinations (although research shows that breast self examinations play a small role in detecting breast cancer). One important advantage of regular self-examinations is that women know how their breasts normally feel, thus any changes in their breasts might be more noticeable. Younger women who have an increased risk of breast cancer because of family history or genetic factors should talk with their doctors about the advantages and disadvantages of starting mammograms at a younger age.
Breast Cancer Awareness Week can also Save Lives
As mentioned earlier, programs such as Breast Cancer Awareness Week or Breast Cancer Awareness Day are essential to spreading the word about breast cancer so that many more women will take the steps necessary to prevent or detect the disease early. These programs are held all over the country at various times throughout the year. Since October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, many week- or day- long programs are also planned during this month.
Community-based groups, clinics, hospitals, colleges, universities, municipalities, and other organizations organize Breast Cancer Awareness Week events that are based on the needs of their communities. The events may include any number of activities such as fundraisers for breast health care programs, breast cancer research, and breast cancer organizations; educational programs; referrals to health care and community organizations; and breast cancer screenings. For instance, the Y-Me National Breast Cancer Organization sponsors "A Day for You" in cities throughout the country. During these day-long outreach programs, participants learn about early detection methods; practice breast self-examination; and receive a clinical breast examination and a mammogram (or schedule an appointment for one).
Colleges and universities often sponsor Breast Care Awareness Week to make younger women aware of the disease. Because the disease is most prevalent among older women, younger women may not realize that they are also at risk for developing the disease. Therefore, they may be unaware of the risk factors associated with the disease and the preventive measures that could save their lives.
All women (and some men) are at risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, a woman's chance of developing invasive breast cancer (cancer that spreads from the layer of cells where it began to other parts of the breast or body) is 1 in 8. However, many women may not be aware of this risk. They may not know what the risk factors are, that there are preventive measures, or that early detection of the disease can save their lives. This is why Breast Cancer Awareness Week is so important. It provides a valuable opportunity for women to learn how to protect themselves against this deadly disease.