What is Breast Cancer Awareness Month?
The first Breast Cancer Awareness Month took place in 1985. Initially, it was an initiative across the United States called National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and is still referred to as such in the country today.
The founding of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month resulted from a partnership between the American Cancer Society and Imperial Chemical Industries, a British pharmaceutical company now part of AstraZeneca.
The aims of Breast Cancer Awareness Month are twofold:
- Raise awareness around breast cancer, the importance of checking one's breasts, and early screening and testing. The American Cancer Society has consistently promoted mammography as the most effective means of finding breast cancer cells early and improving patients’ prognoses.
- Raise funds for continuing research into everything related to breast cancer causes, potential preventions, diagnosis, treatments, and cures.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month also promotes information and support sources for breast cancer patients and their loved ones.
As Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a global campaign, cancer charities organise activities and events throughout October. Typical initiatives include sponsored walks or runs, while sports leagues, including the NFL, also mark the month. Many businesses also get involved by raising money in partnership with a chosen cancer charity.
How common Is breast cancer?
According to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), breast cancer is the most common cancer among women worldwide. The WCRF says over two and a quarter million women received a breast cancer diagnosis in 2020. In addition, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data, breast cancer overtook lung cancer as the most often diagnosed cancer globally in 2020. But while breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer, fewer people die from the condition than from lung, colorectal, liver and stomach cancers.
The charity Breastcancer.org says that in the United States alone:
- 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime.
- Over 350,000 breast cancer cases will be diagnosed in women in 2022.
- More than four million women live with breast cancer or have previously been treated and are in partial or complete remission.
Male breast cancer
Male breast cancer is often overlooked as it is rare. It accounts for fewer than 1% of all global breast cancer diagnoses and all worldwide cancer diagnoses among men. In contrast to women, who in the United States have a lifetime risk of around 1 in 8 of ever developing invasive breast cancer, the equivalent risk for men is 1 in 833.
However, since 2009, the third week of October has been adopted as Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week.
The symptoms of breast cancer in men are generally similar to those for women, which we detail below. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service has a specific guide to male breast cancer on its website.
What are the known risk factors for breast cancer?
The two most significant risk factors for breast cancer are being female and over 50. These factors are why many countries promote mammography screening for women once they reach this age. While most global health authorities use age when advising on risk factors, the WCRF uses the term postmenopausal.
While breast cancer incidences are far higher in older women, there is increasing understanding and awareness of breast cancers in younger women.
The WCRF says there is “strong evidence” of the following additional risk factors being relevant to all women:
- Moderate to high consumption of alcoholic drinks.
- Adult attained height.
The WCRF also states that greater birth weight is a risk factor exclusively linked to premenopausal women. Body fatness throughout adulthood and adult weight gain were risk factors associated solely with postmenopausal women.
In contrast, the WCRF found that regular vigorous physical activity and a higher body fat percentage were potential preventions against breast cancer. However, despite the body fat finding, the WCRF states maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important preventative factors.
How can women check their breasts?
If you're a woman, understanding how to check your breasts can be crucial in finding any changes and notifying your doctor of the need for a check-up.
While there is no right or wrong way to check your breasts, two of the most commonly suggested means of doing so are:
- Visually - look at yourself in the mirror with your arms by your side and then raised.
- By feeling your breasts and armpits up to your collarbone.
Know Your Breasts
To be able to identify changes, you first need to know what's "normal" for you. For example, one of your breasts may be slightly larger than the other, or your breasts may feel tender and lumpier during your menstrual cycle. Post-menopause, your breasts may feel softer and less firm, too.
By knowing what's "normal" for you, you can be more vigilant about the changes to look for.
What to look for when checking your breasts
Once you're happy you know your breasts, you should see your doctor if you notice any of the following changes outside of your menstrual cycle.
- Changes to your breasts’ outline, shape, or size.
- Changes to the appearance or feel of your skin. Look out for dimples on your breasts.
- A new lump or thickening in one breast or armpit, not present on the opposite side.
- Bleeding or non-milky discharge from either nipple.
- Moist, red areas on your nipples that don’t heal quickly. These may look like insect bites.
- Changes to your nipple position.
- Rashes on and around your nipples.
- Continuing discomfort or pain in one of your breasts. While this is only a rare symptom of breast cancer, you should still see your doctor if you are experiencing it.
How to get involved in Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2023
There are many ways to get involved in Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2023. Even something that feels small, like donating a small amount to buy and wear a pink ribbon, can make a significant difference. How many people might see your ribbon on your jacket and be inspired to buy their own or look up what the pink ribbon means? What if that leads to someone checking themselves or visiting a doctor where breast cancer is caught and treated early?
Search for prominent cancer charities in your country, and identify the events taking place this year that you can get involved in.
On a personal level, take the time to review things like your health insurance, check your cancer coverage, and consider changing your coverage and benefits if you'd be happier with added peace of mind.