Every October, there seems to be more and more people jumping on the “pink” band wagon to show their support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Which, don’t get us wrong, we think this is great! The awareness is not only needed, but much appreciated by those who have been personally affected by this disease. But with the overwhelming amount of messaging that is out there and pink ribbons pretty much plastered everywhere and on everything, it can be hard to know what facts you can trust, where to go if you need support, who is making a real difference for the cause, and how you can join in.
We understand your confusion and we’re here to set things straight. We’ve stripped away all the “pinkwashing” to provide you with a thorough guide to everything Breast Cancer Awareness Month. From need-to-know facts and how to manage your own risk, to the best way to make a difference, we want to help you make the most of this important cause.
What are some key talking points about breast cancer that I should know?
- About 12% of women (roughly 1 in 8) are diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives.
- Between 5-10% of all cancers are due to a specific inherited gene change. This is known as hereditary cancer. 20% of cancers are familial, meaning they are thought to be due to an interaction of multiple inherited genetic changes and various environmental factors (like diet, exercise, smoking, etc.). The remaining 70% of cancers are considered sporadic because there are no underlying inherited genetic causes, rather the genetic mutations causing the cancer are a result of lifestyle and environmental factors.
- The genes most commonly associated with hereditary breast cancer are called BRCA1 and BRCA2 (BR stands for breast, CA for cancer). While mutations in these two genes account for the majority of cases of hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer, mutations in several other genes are known to be associated with an increased risk of these cancers too.
- Among women with an identified mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2, about 40-60% will develop breast cancer, and about 20-40% will develop ovarian cancer in their lifetimes. While these numbers are still much higher than in the general population, having a BRCA mutation does not guarantee cancer in your future.
- Breast cancer doesn’t just effect women. Men who carry a BRCA1/2 mutation have a significantly higher risk of developing breast cancer than men in the general population (which is very rare). In particular, men with a BRCA2 mutation have between a 5-10% lifetime risk of breast cancer, while men with a BRCA1 mutation have a lower (but still significant) risk, which falls between 1-2%. However, the risk for male breast cancer is not the most significant risk for men with a BRCA1/2 mutation. The most significant risk for these men is the increased risk of prostate cancer. Men with a BRCA2 mutation have about a 15% risk of developing prostate cancer by age 65. In addition, prostate cancer in BRCA2 mutation carriers tends to be more aggressive and typically has an earlier age of onset than in men without a BRCA2 mutation. Men with a BRCA1 mutation also have an increased risk of prostate cancer, which is about 9% by age 65.
- Hereditary breast cancer is prevalent in certain ethnic backgrounds. In contrast to the 0.2-0.3% of people in the general population, about 1 in 40, or 2.5%, of Ashkenazi Jewish individuals carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation.
- Reducing your risk for hereditary cancer doesn’t always mean prophylactic surgery. There are other options for women who test positive for a BRCA1/2 mutation, including careful surveillance (e.g. frequent breast MRIs and ultrasounds to detect cancers early). In addition, there are medications, such as Tamoxifen, which have been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer in BRCA1/2 positive women when taken for five years.
How can I manage my risk for breast cancer?
It’s important to know your normal. Performing a breast self exam once a month is a great way to become familiar with what is normal for you. If you notice any changes in your breast health, report them to your OBGYN or primary care provider immediately.
Lots of factors can contribute to an individual’s personal risk for breast cancer, such as lifestyle and family health history. Bright Pink, a national non-profit organization that focuses on prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer, has a handy test you can take to assess your own risk. Take the quiz now!
Want to know how you can lower your risk? We’ve got some lifestyle tips for you.
What if breast cancer runs in my family?
Being aware of your family health history can be incredibly impactful, especially if breast cancer is the common denominator. A genetic counselor can review your personal and family history to determine your individual risk for hereditary cancer. They can explain available testing options and provide support and guidance on how to manage your risk.
Where can I go/send others for support?
Bright Pink provides free educational programs, one-on-one mentors and support groups for young women who are at an increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer.
F.O.R.C.E wants to improve the lives of individuals and families who have been touched by hereditary breast, ovarian and related cancers. They offer local support groups and peer navigators that can answer questions, provide support and connect you with medical professionals.
Imerman Angels uses a unique pairing process to connect individuals seeking cancer support with a “Mentor Angel” who shares a similar story.
Young Survival Coalition supports young women diagnosed with breast cancer and provides face to face networking with other women who have faced breast cancer at a young age.
How can I make a difference?
1. Volunteer with an awareness/prevention organization
2. Be an informed shopper
Just because something has a pink ribbon on it, doesn’t mean that brand is aligned with a breast cancer prevention organization or that any of the proceeds are going towards cancer research or prevention. The pink ribbon symbol is not regulated by any national organization, so remember to think before you purchase pink:
- Find out how the company is supporting Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Do they donate a percentage of a product’s sales or donate directly from their profits? What organization are they donating to and how will the funds be used?
- Research the company to make sure that their business practices are not adding to the breast cancer crisis.
- Pick a breast cancer organization you like and check their website to see who their corporate partners are.
3. Donate or fund raise
Help fund breakthrough breast cancer research and support prevention/awareness programs:
The Susan G. Komen Foundation wants to end breast cancer. You can choose to donate to general breast cancer research, triple negative breast cancer research, or stage IV/metastatic breast cancer research.
Bright Pink is focused on prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer. They are committed to educating and empowering young women to be proactive about their health.
Imerman Angels wants to provide one-on-one support to cancer fighters, survivors, and caregivers by connecting them with individuals just like them who have been in a similar situation and can provide support.
F.O.R.C.E is dedicated to providing free information and resources to individuals who are at a higher risk for breast, ovarian and related cancers while advocating for hereditary cancer research and ensuring underserved populations have access to the same information and resources.
4. Educate others
While science works to develop better treatments for breast cancer, we can do our part to educate the general public about cancer prevention and awareness: