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October 19, 2012 // By Olivia Fermano // Comments

Breast Cancer Awareness – Beyond the Pink Ribbon

Cancer // Experts // OB/GYN // Women's Health Share this article

Ah, the fabulous colors of fall. A time when those of us inhabiting the more northern parts of the hemisphere are treated to a natural environment rich in russet, gold and burgundy hues. Then, come October: PINK. Ribbon

There are all the little ribbons, t-shirts and caps. There’s pink neon lights atop Philadelphia’s tallest skyscrapers. And for one whole month every season, pro football players – those hardened gladiators of the gridiron – are sporting hot pink footwear and gloves. (No pale pink for those guys!) Did you know there is even a whole website solely dedicated to turning “the internet Pink for October in an effort to help bring attention to Breast Cancer Awareness Month”?           

Thanks to the original efforts of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® and millions of other dedicated and generous folks, pink is now as synonymous with the month of October as a jack-o-lantern, a truly universal symbol of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

So what has all this “pink awareness” gotten us?

There are benefits, for sure. According to Komen, which was founded in 1982, the combined efforts poured into more research and awareness have led to: earlier detection and more effective treatments; a significant rise in early stage breast cancer’s five-year survival rates; and an increase of federal funds toward research, prevention and treatment – from $30 million in 1982 to now over $850 million. But in all this national pink fervor, women must remember that while working to help the greater good is a wonderful thing, they also need to remain aware and vigilant on a personal level.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS) breast cancer is one of the most common cancers among American women (second only to skin cancers), affecting one in eight (12 percent) of women in the U.S. Breast self-exams, clinical breast exams and mammograms are still the best first lines of defense against breast cancer.

“Mammography, including digital mammography, remains the single best screening method for early detection of breast cancer,” said Brian S. Englander, MD, director of the Women’s Imaging Center at Pennsylvania Hospital. “Although new modalities play important roles, the best research has consistently demonstrated the importance of annual mammography for breast cancer screening.”

Thanks to more research and improved technology, women don’t need to fear annual mammograms. “Recent research has found that the risk from exposure to mammogram radiation is even lower than previously thought, said Dahlia Sataloff, MDdirector of the Integrated Breast Center  at Pennsylvania Hosiptal and vice chair of the Department of Surgery. “The newer digital mammograms use about 21 percent less radiation than traditional film mammography. They also take sharper pictures, so there’s less of a chance that you’ll get called back for a repeat test.” Sataloff_dahlia

It also helps if a woman can gauge her risk for breast cancer. Obesity, especially after menopause, is a clear risk as body fat is a significant source of the hormone estrogen – a known contributing factor in causing breast cancer. Recent studies also suggest that highly fit women are less likely to die from breast cancer their less fit counterparts.

Diet can also affect breast cancer risk. Even moderate alcohol consumption (two to three drinks a week) can increase a woman’s risk while two or more drinks a day can increase risk up to 25 percent. Soy supplements can also increase risk since they contain concentrated doses and mimic estrogen in the body. Good news for all you vegetarians out there though:  soy foods themselves, like tofu, edamame and soy milk, do not increase risk.

“Many factors contribute to a woman’s risk of breast cancer – environmental, behavioral, genetic – the important thing is to be proactive. Visit your gynecologist regularly and discuss all these factors with him or her so you can determine when and how often you should be screened,” said Dr. Sataloff.

If caught early, breast cancer has a more than 90 percent survival rate in the U.S. Part of prevention, in addition to diet, exercise and regular screenings, is knowing your family’s history and possible genetic risk. While family history isn’t everything, it can play a large role, especially in families where people carry theBRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations. Even having a father or brother with colon cancer can raise a woman’s risk of breast cancer as it signifies possible BRCA1 or 2 mutations. Physicians and scientists in Penn’s new Basser Research Center for BRCA are focused specifically on the treatment and prevention of cancers associated with these hereditary mutations. But those genes don’t only impact women – men carry them, too, and that’s an important point to make during all this pink mania:  men can also develop breast cancer.

According to the ACS, as far as the symptoms of breast cancer go, men and women both need to look for irregularities and changes in their breasts including swelling, lumps, skin irritation or dimpling, breast or nipple pain, nipple retraction, redness, scaliness or thickening of the nipple or breast skin and nipple discharge.

So this October, be informed, be proactive and do your own part to “be aware” this Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Change some bad habits to good, see your doctor, get screened and go ahead – wear pink and wear it proud. While it may have become more of a fashion statement than ever originally intended, it’s safe to say that as far as breast cancer is concerned:  pink, it does a body good.

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