Everywhere you look in October, in real life and online, you see pink. Clothing, cosmetics, car accessories, food, kitchen appliances and even the NFL all come in pink this month to raise awareness for breast cancer screening and research. And no matter how tenuous the connection, all this pink helps remind people that when more than 40,000 women die each year in the U.S. from this disease, we are all affected. Caretakers, loved ones and home care aides know that self-exams, early screening, and early intervention are the best ways to stay ahead of the risk of breast cancer.

Every year in America, more than 200,000 mothers, sisters, daughters and grandmothers are diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite great advances in detection and treatment over the last decades, more than 40,000 women still die every year from this disease. Women over 50 are most likely to develop breast cancer, but nearly 10% of new cases each year are found in women under 45, and about 1% of cases occur in men. So no one is immune to this disease, not when 12.4% of all U.S. women will be diagnosed during their lifetime.

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer, after melanoma, among women in the United States. And much like melanoma, self-exam and regular screening are the best way to detect a burgeoning cancer at an early stage. Currently, according to the CDC the recommendation for women between 50 and 74 is a mammogram every two years. Women between 40 and 49 should get screened at the suggestion of their doctor, but for those with breast cancer in the family medical history, regular mammograms are crucial. Adult women are taught to perform monthly self-exams to search for unusual lumps, skin textures, or fluids, and self-exams are the best early detection method for women of all ages. However, not all breast cancers display these outward symptoms, and 90% of breast cancer occur in women with no risk factors, aside from age, and no family history of the disease. Science discovered the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in 1994 and 1995, and while just 5% to 10% of all new cases correlate to the genes, genetic testing can give some women options they would not otherwise have. According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, gene testing is a good idea for women in the following categories:

  • A known BRCA1/2 gene mutation (or other inherited gene mutation linked to breast cancer) in the family
  • A personal history of breast cancer at age 50 or younger
  • A personal history of breast cancer at any age and a family member (parent, sibling, child, grandparent, grandchild, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece or first cousin) diagnosed with breast cancer at age 50 or younger
  • A personal history of breast cancer and Ashkenazi Jewish heritage
  • A personal history of triple negative breast cancer (breast cancer that is estrogen receptor-negative, progesterone receptor-negative and HER2-negative) diagnosed at age 60 or younger
  • A personal or family history of ovarian cancer
  • A personal or family history of male breast cancer
  • A family member (parent, sibling, child, grandparent, grandchild, uncle, aunt, nephew or niece) diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45 or younger

Gene testing offers options that women never had before, as in the famous example of Angelina Jolie, who chose double mastectomy surgery as a preventative measure at age 37. When she was tested for and found to have the BRCA1/2 mutation, she then chose surgery to avoid what doctors said was an 87% chance of developing breast cancer herself. Women have many options now that their mothers and grandmothers didn’t, and with their doctors can chose medication, radiation, double and single mastectomy, lumpectomy, chemotherapy – or combinations of some or all treatments.

In 1975 the odds of surviving a breast cancer diagnosis for five years was 75% – and through 2012, that rate is now over 90%. The fight against breast cancer starts with awareness, screening, and early detection, and Breast Cancer Awareness Month is just one way for caregivers, loved ones, grandmothers, mothers, sisters and daughters to support one another in the fight.