Breast Cancer Awareness: In The Eyes Of The Beholder? by Tiffany Fox

Many of us define Breast Cancer Awareness Month, also known as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM), as an annual health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities every October to (1) increase awareness of the disease and to (2) raise funding for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure.

Critics define Breast Cancer Awareness Month by conflicts of interest, mostly between corporations sponsoring breast cancer awareness while profiting from diagnosis and treatment. For example, Breast Cancer Action, a breast cancer advocacy organization, sites that October is now more of a public relations campaign that avoids discussion of the causes and prevention of breast cancer and instead focuses on “awareness” as a way to encourage women to have their breasts examined. Other criticisms are centered on marketing efforts of "pink products", citing that more money is spent on marketing campaigns than the amount that is donated to the cause.

People directly impacted by breast cancer, such as sufferers, survivors, friends and families of the former and the deceased, may define the most intimate and realistic details of this disease. They may even identify less with the more commercially publicized aspects of breast cancer awareness that many of us have grown accustomed to since Breast Cancer Awareness Month was established.  For example, some sufferers and supporters alike define the issue of “how to” address the subject of breast cancer awareness and breast cancer prevention, while many people simply aim to get the word out or hope to serve the cause in any way they can.

More specifically, there seem to be conflicting ideas and opinions about the designated month of October altogether, the use of the color pink to denote the month, and the added attention on breasts and the use of their likeness in campaigns and messages geared toward the cause. While this list could go on, so does the rest of the year as October passes and cancer persists. That being said, we can debate these messages and campaigns that are offensive to women, ridicule the lack of socially responsibility on behalf of certain corporations, and chastise those entities we deem unworthy of donating to charities for breast cancer, but all in all, we should note that takes us further from raising awareness about the causes and prevention of breast cancer. Is this a matter of harsh reality vs. what is ideal? Ideally, no person would ever get cancer of any kind, therefore omitting the need for this month of awareness. We can imagine that when a cure is discovered any person with cancer would be afforded the rights to have it, all of which takes us down sort of a rabbit-hole.  In reality, we can argue the correct way to address breast cancer and single out those who do it “distastefully” but that battle isn’t against cancer, so who wins? Is there a better way to bring awareness to risk factors and preventative measures associated with breast cancer? If so, continue to teach them. Is there a more “righteous”, less-breasts centered way to urge young women to pay attention to their breasts?  If so, continue to highlight them. In a just world, all supporters would have perfect and good intentions, all messages would be void of humor and sexuality that is offensive to others and full of perfect sentiments to champion the cause, and of course, no donation or marketing effort would be in vain.

As a woman who primarily acknowledges the risks, implications, and preventative measures associated with this disease, I’d like to encourage you to define breast-cancer for yourself or with your community and identify with how you or someone you know could be personally impacted by this disease in reality and how you can take action to help. For starters, do you know who's at risk, what puts you at risk, or preventative measures to keep breast cancer away? As the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month approaches, here are a few “Reality Checks” to consider for a lifetime.

Reality Check #1: The vast majority of women with breast cancer have no family history.

Get Screened. Ask your health care provider which screening tests are right for you if you are at a higher risk.  Have a mammogram every year starting at age 40 if you are at average risk. Have a clinical breast exam at least every three years starting at age 20, and every year starting at age 40.

Know what is normal for you and see your health care provider if you notice any of these breast changes:

  • Lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area
  • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast
  • Change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
  • Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast
  • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly
  • New pain in one spot that doesn't go away

Reality Check #2: Being heavy (overweight) increases your risk a whole lot—by as much as 40%. Take responsibility for the aspects of your body and health that are within your control.

Make healthy lifestyle choices. Physical activity contributes to health by reducing the heart rate, decreasing the risk for cardiovascular disease, and reducing the amount of bone loss that is associated with age and osteoporosis. Physical activity also helps the body use calories more efficiently, thereby helping in weight loss and maintenance. It can increase basal metabolic rate, reduces appetite, and helps in the reduction of body fat.

·     Avoid becoming overweight or lose weight. Obesity raises the risk of breast cancer after menopause, the time of life when breast cancer most often occurs. Avoid gaining weight over time, and try to maintain a body-mass index under 25 (calculators can be found online).

·     Eat healthy. Embrace a diet high in vegetables and fruit and low in sugared drinks, refined carbohydrates and fatty foods. Consider eating lean protein such as fish or chicken breast and red meat in moderation, if at all. Eat whole grains. Choose vegetable oils over animal fats.
      Keep physically active. Research suggests that increased physical activity, even when begun later in life, reduces overall breast-cancer risk by about 10 percent to 30 percent. For example, moderate exercise like a 30-minute walk five days a week.

Reality Check #3: Studies show that current or recent use of birth control pills (oral contraceptives) slightly increases the risk of breast cancer.

Weigh the pros and cons of birth control pill use. Although taking the pill slightly increases risk, most women on the pill are at low risk of breast cancer because they are young and premenopausal. So, even with a slight increase in risk, they are still unlikely to get breast cancer. And, once women stop taking the pill, the slight increase in risk begins to decrease and over time, goes away. Did you know: Once women stop taking the pill, their risk begins to decrease, returning to that of “never users” in about 10 years! Before making any decisions about birth control pills, you should weigh the pros and cons of using them. One area still under study is how today's lower-dose pills affect breast cancer risk. However, more research is needed to draw conclusions. At this time, there are too few data to comment on whether these pills affect breast cancer risk the same as other types of birth control pills.

Reality Check #4: Breast cancer also develops in men.

Remember to love your body; acknowledge any risk factors you identify with and safeguard your health. God Bless!

Resources -- National Cancer Institute – BreastCancer.Org -- Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center -- Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation -- Official National Breast Cancer Awareness Month -- Find clinical trials -- More about how to reduce your risk of breast cancer -- More about breast cancer in men 

Follow Tiffany on Twitter: @Victory_Nicole and on Instagram: @victorynicole
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