This summer, Christina Applegate, star of "Samantha Who," was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy in mid-August and is now thought to be 100 percent cancer-free. In a recent interview, Christina said, "One thing my mother always used to say when she was going through cancer was, 'cancer is a word, not a sentence, and being here and being in a dress and feeling good is a victory. You can get past this thing and all of those things that define you as a woman. There's so many other things that define you as a woman,' so you know, I'm alive and I feel fantastic."
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in the U.S. and is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women aged 40-59. Unfortunately, nearly 200,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year and approximately 40,000 women will die from the disease.
In the U.S., white women get breast cancer most often, followed by black women, Asian women and Pacific Islanders, Hispanic women and Native American women. However, black women are most likely to die from breast cancer, followed by white women, Hispanic women, Native American women, Asian women and Pacific Island women.
Like most other cancers, breast cancer is an uncontrolled growth of cells that has the potential to break through normal breast tissue barriers and spread to other parts of the body. While cancer is always caused by a genetic abnormality (a "mistake" in the genetic material), only 5-10 percent of cancers are inherited from your mother or father. Instead, 90 percent of breast cancer cases are due to genetic abnormalities that happen as a result of the aging process and life in general.
In addition to yearly physician clinical and monthly self-examinations, mammograms (x-ray examination of the breast) are used in women who are a-symptomatic. The goal of screening mammography is to detect cancer when it is still too small to be felt by the woman or her physician.
At the very least, every woman should get a clinical breast exam every three years if she is under the age of 40. Women should have mammograms every year starting at age 40 if they're at average risk.
Possible signs of
breast cancer include:
• An immobile lump in the breast or under the arm
• New pain in one spot that doesn't go away or tenderness, discomfort or a "pulling" sensation
• Breast skin is dimpled or puckered
• Discharge from the nipple that starts suddenly
• Change in the shape or size of the breast or swelling of the skin that covers it with warmth, redness or darkening
• Breast tissue may feel thicker, even though there is no lump; pain or redness of the skin
• Sore or retracted nipple
• Sores on the nipples or breast that do not clear up after two weeks of treatment.
Now for the good news: Breast cancer has a very high cure rate, with 98 percent of women surviving for 5 years if the cancer is diagnosed early.
A risk factor is anything that increases a person's chance of getting a disease. But identifying one or many of these factors doesn't mean a person will get the disease. Some women who develop breast cancer had no known risk factors.
There are risk factors you cannot change. You may have an increased risk of breast cancer due to:
• Gender: While more than 99 percent of breast cancer cases develop in women, they do occur in men.
• Aging: Our risk increases as we grow older. Roughly 77 percent of women with breast cancer are older then 50 when diagnosed.
• Family history: If your mother, sister or daughter has been diagnosed with cancer, your risk factor is roughly doubled.
• Menstrual periods: Women who started menstruating early (before age 12) or who go through menopause late (after age 50) have a slightly higher risk.
• History of cancer in one breast (3 to 4 times greater chance) or removal of benign breast tissue.
There are risk factors you can change. More defined risk factors that may be changed are:
• Postmenopausal obesity: Being overweight is linked to a higher incidence of breast cancer, especially if the weight gain occurred in adulthood or after menopause.
• Alcohol consumption: Women who consume 1-4 alcoholic drinks a day have a 50 percent higher rate of breast cancer than those who consume one drink or less per day.
• Lack of physical activity: New data from the Woman's Health Initiative suggest that postmenopausal women who exercise and keep their weight down substantially reduce their risk of breast cancer.
• Follow a high-fiber diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products for calcium, no fried foods and more protein from plants and less from animals.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month so take this time to educate yourself on monthly breast self-exams, make an appointment to see your physician for a clinical breast exam and schedule a mammogram. You can also work on those risk factors that you can change.