There is perhaps no disease that strikes greater fear in the hearts of women than breast cancer. It is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths, behind lung cancer, and the second-most-common form of cancer among women, behind skin cancer.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to honor the many who have died while remembering that early detection is key to preventing deaths. October is an excellent time to have a mammogram or make an appointment to get one.
Breast cancer occurs when cells grow beyond their normal bounds. The cancer can then metastasize — that is, spread through the blood or lymph systems to other parts of the body.
The average age of diagnosis for breast cancer is 62, though experts recommend that women begin having annual mammograms at age 45, and as early as 40 for women with histories of breast cancer in their families.
Though the symptoms can be different for everyone, some of the most common include:
• A lump, knot or thickening under the breast or in the underarm area.
• Swelling, redness or darkening of the breast.
• Change in a breast’s size or shape.
• An itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple.
• A pulling-in or retraction of the nipple or other parts of the breast.
The American Cancer Society estimates that about 41,000 American women will die of breast cancer in 2018. Roughly 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with the illness in their lifetime.
Men can develop breast cancer as well, though their risk is far smaller, about 1 in 1,000. Less than 1 percent of all breast cancer cases occur in men, but according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, there will be about 2,550 new cases among men in the U.S. this year, and roughly 480 deaths.
Despite the numbers of women diagnosed with breast cancer, the foundation also has reasons to be optimistic. Thanks to technological advancements and early detection, more lives are being saved. Breast cancer mortality rates in the U.S. increased slowly each year from 1975 through most of the 1980s, but from 1989 to 2015, mortality dropped by 39 percent, which saved more than 320,000 lives.
Many local hospitals are also dedicating more hours to providing mammograms to help diagnose the disease. In addition, advancements are being made in the science of diagnosis. In July 2017, Mercy Medical Center, in Rockville Centre, became the first hospital in the state to install a molecular breast imaging system, called the LumaGEM MBI. With near 100 percent accuracy, the machine detects breast cancer in women who have dense breast tissue and those who have a higher risk for the disease. About 50 percent of women have dense breast tissue, which makes finding cancer through mammography alone more difficult, according to the Komen Foundation.
Elected officials have joined the fight, too. In June 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law called Get Screened, No Excuses, which gives public employees four hours of paid leave per year for breast cancer screening and eliminates such obstacles as copayments and annual deductibles. The law also requires 210 hospitals and clinics to offer extended hours for screenings to help women who have difficulty scheduling mammograms during the typical 9-to-5 workday.
Reminders of breast cancer are found in many places in October. Pink is usually prominent on NFL players’ uniforms as part of the league’s Crucial Catch initiative, in the hope that Americans glued to their TVs and phones during football games will also think about the millions of lives that breast cancer and other forms of the disease have affected.
When October ends and the pink-tinged days are over, though, the fight against the disease must carry on. When the pink apparel is put away for another year, it’s important to remember the importance of getting tested to ensure that the number of fatalities continues to decline.
Walk set for Oct. 21
Long Islanders are battling breast cancer by taking part in events to raise awareness about early detection and to raise funds for research. Tens of thousands of people will participate in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides of Long Island Walk on Oct. 21 at Jones Beach, and there will be many other events across the South Shore this month. For more on the walk, go to bit.ly/2Nr0O1v.