Every two minutes, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States.1
Breast Cancer Awareness Month, observed every October, plays a crucial role in addressing and promoting breast health within the Black community. It is a time when individuals, organizations, and communities come together to amplify their efforts in raising awareness, providing education, and improving access to screening and early detection services. This dedicated month serves as a platform to empower individuals with knowledge about breast cancer, including risk factors, screening options, and resources.
Understanding Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is a disease that begins when abnormal cells in the breast start to grow uncontrollably. These cells can form a tumor that may be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Breast cancer can occur in men and women, irrespective of their race or ethnicity, but it's far more common in women.
Breast cancer risk factors can be categorized into genetic and lifestyle factors. It's important to note that having one or more of these risk factors doesn't guarantee the development of breast cancer, and many individuals with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors other than being female and aging.
Genetic Risk Factors2:
Family History: Individuals with close relatives (such as a mother, sister, or daughter) who have had breast cancer are at higher risk.
Inherited Genetic Mutations: Specific genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, significantly increase the risk of breast cancer.
Personal History: If an individual has had breast cancer in one breast, they are at increased risk of developing cancer in the other breast or recurrence in the same breast.
Age and Gender: Being a woman and aging are the most significant risk factors for breast cancer. While men can also develop breast cancer, it is approximately 100 times more common in women. Risk increases with age, with the majority of cases occurring in women over 50.
Reproductive Factors: Early menstruation (before age 12), late menopause (after age 55), and having the first child at an older age can slightly increase the risk of breast cancer.
Lifestyle Risk Factors2:
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT): Some forms of HRT, especially combined estrogen and progestin therapy, have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. It's important for women considering HRT to discuss the risks and benefits with their healthcare provider.
Alcohol Consumption: Drinking alcohol in excess is linked to an elevated risk of breast cancer. Even moderate alcohol consumption can contribute to this risk.
Obesity: Being overweight or obese, particularly after menopause, increases the risk of breast cancer. Fat cells produce estrogen, and higher estrogen levels can promote the growth of some breast cancers.
Physical Inactivity: A sedentary lifestyle is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. Engaging in regular physical activity can help reduce this risk.
Diet: While the link between diet and breast cancer risk is still being studied, a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in saturated fats may have a protective effect.
Disparities in Breast Cancer
In the United States, breast cancer occurs within every racial and ethnic group. However, there are variations in statistics and outcomes across the different groups. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), Black women in the United States have a 40% higher mortality rate from breast cancer compared to white women, despite having a slightly lower incidence rate.3 Black Women are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer in the later stages of the disease. It is also reported that 1 in 5 Black women with breast cancer are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, which is harder to treat. This is higher than any other racial or ethnic group.3
Several factors contribute to the higher risk factors for breast cancer in Black women, including poverty, limited access to transportation, and being uninsured. Poverty often compounds the issue, as individuals facing financial hardship may prioritize basic necessities over preventive healthcare, leading to delayed or missed screenings. Limited access to transportation can hinder individuals from reaching healthcare facilities for screenings, especially in rural or underserved areas. A lack of health insurance can be a significant barrier to accessing regular screenings, clinical exams, and mammograms, which are essential for early detection and improved outcomes. This further exacerbates the disparities in breast cancer outcomes.
To overcome these barriers, community outreach, education programs, and the availability of free or low-cost screenings are essential. Organizations such as Susan G. Komen and The Kansas Department of Health and Environment are at the forefront of efforts to reduce these disparities.
Early Detection is Key
Regular breast self-exams, clinical breast exams, and mammograms are crucial for early detection and improving outcomes, especially for individuals at higher risk. When breast cancer is identified at an early stage, such as stage 0 or stage 1, the treatment options are often less invasive and have a significantly higher likelihood of success.
Breast-self exams are an inspection of your breasts that you do on your own to detect any changes in your breasts and should be performed monthly. Self-exams should not replace clinical breast exams done by your provider, but they serve as a valuable tool to help you become familiar with what is normal for your breast health. If you detect changes, you should consult a healthcare provider. Refer to this video to learn how to perform a self-breast exam: https://youtu.be/YrQW6GaK1c8?feature=shared
Clinical Breast Exams
Clinical Breast exams are done by a healthcare provider and are recommended between 1-3 years depending on your risk factors for women ages 25-39 years old.
A mammogram is a specialized type of X-ray used for detecting and diagnosing breast cancer. Mammograms can identify breast cancer at an early stage when it's often too small to be felt or visible through other imaging methods. Typically, they are recommended for women aged 50 and should be done every 2 years. However, depending on your risk factors, it's advisable to consult your healthcare provider, who may recommend a mammogram at an earlier age.
Empowering Our Community with a Healthier Lifestyle
Beyond early detection, we must also focus on prevention. Adopting a healthier lifestyle can reduce the risk of breast cancer. Nutrition, physical activity, and stress management are all key components of a healthy lifestyle. By understanding the nature of breast cancer, acknowledging the disparities within our community, promoting early detection, and breaking down barriers to screening, we can make meaningful strides in the fight against this disease. We encourage all members of our community to share this information with their friends and family. Together we can stand strong in the face of breast cancer, embodying the spirit of resilience that defines our community.
Breast cancer facts & stats: Incidence, age, survival, & more. National Breast Cancer Foundation. (2023a, September 25). https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-cancer-facts/
Risk factors [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Oct 12]. Available from: https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-cancer-risk-factors/
McDowell S. Breast cancer death rates are highest for black women-again: Breast cancer facts & figures, 2022-2024 [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Oct 12]. Available from: https://www.cancer.org/research/acs-research-news/breast-cancer-death-rates-are-highest-for-black-women-again.html