Breast Cancer Awareness Month
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it aims to spread the word about breast cancer and detection techniques to increase survival rates. The month of October was not always dedicated to breast cancer. This campaign was formulated by a partnership between the American Cancer Society and Imperial Chemical Industries in 1985. Initially, the campaign was a single week in October committed to spreading the word on breast cancer; however, it was later extended to the entire month of October for the cause. During October, you will see organizations supporting the pink cause through logo changes aligning with the pink ribbon, sporting teams including pink on their equipment, and charities collecting money to help cure breast cancer.
The Pink Ribbon
The pink ribbon goes hand-in-hand with breast cancer awareness. The ribbon icon can be seen in commercials, fundraising events, and worn by people worldwide. But there were peach loops before the pink ribbon became synonymous with breast cancer. Charlotte Haley wanted to bring more awareness to breast cancer and the underfunding of the disease. She had several family members afflicted by the disease and, in response, created peach-colored loops to support more funding for finding a cure. So why do we not see peach circles everywhere? The power of media and influence.
Around the same time that Charlotte Haley was handing out peach loops, Evelyn Lauder (breast cancer survivor) of Estee Lauder established the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and created the pink ribbon we know today as its symbol. The Estee Lauder magazine had breast cancer awareness magazine issues and handed out pink ribbons at their counters worldwide. The far reach of Estee Lauder led to the adoption of the pink ribbon as the symbol of breast cancer awareness.
The Cancer Affecting 1 in 8
Breast cancer is the second most common cancer behind some skin cancers. A breast cancer diagnosis will affect one in eight women in their lifetime. One out of every 100 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Race, age, and family history can increase the chances of someone being diagnosed with this cancer. As noted in the name, the cancer starts in the breast. Unfortunately, it is not just one type of cancer that forms here. Depending on where the cancer forms, the following types of breast cancers can develop:
- Lobular Cancer—This cancer forms in the glands that make breast milk.
- Ductal Cancer—This cancer type forms in the small canals that come out from the lobules and carry the milk to the nipple. This is the most common place for breast cancer to start.
- Paget Disease—A less common type of breast cancer, Paget disease of the breast can start in the nipple.
- Phyllodes Tumor — A less common type of breast cancer, this cancer forms in the fat and connective tissue (stroma) surrounding the ducts and lobules.
- Angiosarcoma—A less common type of breast cancer that can start in the lining of the blood and lymph vessels.
Breast cancer, once developed, can spread to other parts of the body when the cancer cells enter the blood or lymph system (metastasize). This is why the campaign for breast cancer awareness stresses the importance of examination and paying attention to symptoms before the cancer spreads to the rest of the body.
Breast Cancer Symptoms
The symptoms of breast cancer can vary between people, and in some cases, there may be no symptoms at all. The following symptoms are the most common for women and men:
- Lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
- Swelling or thickening of all or part of the breast
- Dimpling or skin irritation of breast skin
- Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
- Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
- Any change in the size or shape of the breast
- Pain in any area of the breast
- A lump or swelling in the breast.
- Redness or flaky skin in the breast.
- Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
- Nipple discharge.
- Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
The key is to recognize these symptoms and take action. The worst thing is to ignore the signs or decide to deal with it later. As with any cancer, early detection is vital to a better chance of survival.
Lowering the Risk
While there is no way to prevent being diagnosed with breast cancer, there are steps to take to lower your chances. According to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), these actions can help reduce the chances of being diagnosed:
- Keep a healthy weight and exercise regularly.
- Choose not to drink alcohol or drink alcohol in moderation.
- Ask your doctor about the risks if you take hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills.
- Breastfeed your children, if possible.
- If you have a family history of breast cancer, talk to your doctor about ways to lower your risk.
Another significant component is early detection. Women should self-examine regularly and schedule yearly mammograms to help catch breast cancer at the earliest stages. Mammograms are considered the best tool for detecting breast cancer early. When caught early, breast cancer can be treated and possibly cured. According to the American Cancer Society, there are over four million breast cancer survivors today.
Advances in Treatment
Although over 40,000 people die yearly, a breast cancer diagnosis is not necessarily fatal if caught early enough. This is due to the advancements in technology and treatment of this cancer. The American Cancer Society outlines the following advancements in treating breast cancer:
Personalized treatment through biomarkers—Biomarkers are genes, proteins, and other substances that can be measured in the blood, tissues, and other bodily fluids. A growing area of study is analyzing the biomarkers left behind by dying cancer cells (ctDNA). The biomarkers can help with treatments in the following ways:
- Looking for new biomarkers in the tumor cells might mean the cancer has become resistant to specific treatments (like chemo or targeted drug therapy).
- Determining if a particular drug will work on a tumor before trying it.
- Predicting if the breast cancer will recur (come back) in women with early-stage breast cancer.
- Predicting if neoadjuvant treatment is working to destroy the tumor instead of using imaging tests like a CT scan or US.
- Determining if breast cancer or a high-risk breast condition is present before changes are found on an imaging test like a mammogram.
New imaging technology that may provide better insight than the currently used mammogram:
- Scintimammography (molecular breast imaging)—SMM is a nuclear medicine imaging technique that can image malignant breast tumors by administering a gamma-ray emitting radiopharmaceutical to the patient.
- Positron Emission Mammography (PEM)—An imaging technique that emphasizes imaging the chest instead of the whole body.
- Electrical impedance imaging (EIT)—An imaging technique that reconstructs images of a specific region in the human body based on the electrical conductivity of biological tissue.
- Elastography—An imaging test that checks your organs to see if they are stiffer than normal.
New breast cancer treatment options:
- Studying if shorter courses of radiation therapy for very early-stage breast cancers are at least as good as the longer courses now often used.
- Testing if different types of radiation therapy, such as proton beam radiation, might be better than standard radiation.
- Combining certain drugs (like two targeted drugs, a targeted drug with an immunotherapy drug, or a hormone drug with a targeted drug) to see if they work better together.
- Trying to find new drugs or drug combinations that might help treat breast cancer that has spread to the brain.
- Testing different immunotherapy drugs to treat triple-negative breast cancer.
- Giving cancer vaccines with standard chemotherapy to see if this helps keep the cancer from coming back after treatment.
- Finding new ways to treat women with hereditary breast cancer since they have a higher chance of the cancer recurring.
- Determining if chemotherapy is needed to treat every woman with HER2-positive breast cancer.
- Finding new treatment options when breast cancer becomes resistant to current treatments.
Supportive care for those receiving treatment for breast cancer:
- If there are better medicines or ways to prevent nerve damage that sometimes happen with certain chemotherapy drugs.
- If drugs or other treatments might help limit memory problems and other brain symptoms after chemotherapy.
- If particular heart or blood pressure drugs can help prevent the heart damage sometimes caused by common breast cancer drugs such as doxorubicin and trastuzumab.
- If there are medicines that might help treat the tired feeling that cancer can cause.
While some of these advancements are in the early stages of study and development, they potentially increase breast cancer identification and survivability.
What Can You Do to Support Breast Cancer Awareness?
As mentioned earlier, many companies and sporting events will show their support by using pink in their logos and equipment. Charities will collect donations during October to support research efforts and hand out pink ribbons. While this is good to get the message out there, many believe this is “pinkwashing,” where companies and charities collect large sums of money but only donate a small fraction of the proceeds.
The best way to show support is to relay information about breast cancer and provide support to those in need. This is done through distributing reliable health information, providing emotional support, and connecting women to local resources. Women having the correct information regarding mammograms will increase the likelihood of a woman getting one. If you want to donate to support breast cancer research, research the organizations/charities you are contributing to. Sites like charitynavigator.org and guidestar.org will provide ratings of charities based on the percentage of the money they take in and is given to the communities they support.