October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an opportunity to spread the word about the importance of breast health and early detection of breast cancer. During this time, many national and international organizations raise funds to increase awareness, fund breast cancer research and help women with breast cancer pay for their treatments. Founded officially in 1985 as a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries, which produces many oncology drugs, the goal of the month was to promote mammography as the most effective way to screen for breast cancer.
Yet, the history of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is also the story of a battle against deep-rooted sexism in the medical field. The onset of second wave feminism in the 1970’s empowered women to take a stand against patronizing doctors who treated women’s sexual and reproductive health as secondary, without guiding women to autonomy. When journalist Rose Kushner protested in 1974 against common medical practices during which surgeons who performed biopsies for suspected cancerous lumps would remove a woman’s breasts, chest muscles, and lymph nodes entirely – even if completely unnecessary – her resistance was initially seen as idiotic. Later, she was appointed to the National Cancer Advisory Board by President Jimmy Carter for her heroic protest.
The current symbol representing Breast Cancer Awareness Month is the pink ribbon, which was initially started by the Susan G. Komen Foundation. In 1993, Evelyn Lauder (then the Senior Corporate VP of Estée Lauder Companies), a breast cancer survivor, founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and officially recognized the pink ribbon as its symbol. Wearing a pink ribbon in October (or any other time of the year!) can often be a great way of catching people’s attention, offering opportunities to talk about the importance of breast health. In fact, between 1991 and 1996, federal funding for breast cancer research increased fourfold, and the percentage of women who have received mammograms has more than doubled in the last decade.
Currently, breast cancer is the leading type of cancer affecting women in India, and nearly one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. However, the 5-year relative survival rate of people with breast cancer is nearly 99% (if the cancer is located only in the breast). Therefore, regular screening and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can greatly contribute to women’s likelihood of beating cancer.
Additionally, women should regularly self-administer breast exams. In fact, according to Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, “40% of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important”. The essence of the exam is to familiarize yourself with your breasts regularly by applying pressure and visually analyzing them so you can be aware of differences. Look at your breasts in the mirror and examine their size, shape, and color. Do the same while raising your arms. Also look out for any fluid coming out of one or more of your nipples. Then, lie down on a flat surface and use your hands to apply pressure across your chest and around your breasts in multiple locations, feeling for abnormal lumps. Finally, examine your breasts physically while standing in the shower, using circular motions and covering the whole breasts. Essentially, if you feel any lumps or see any swelling, unusual fluid, or abnormal growth, you should visit your doctor immediately for a check-up.
Mammograms, which are x-rays of the breast, are another way that doctors detect breast cancers. The American Cancer Society recommends that women ages 45 to 54 should get mammograms once every year, and women who are 55 or older should get a mammogram done at least once every 2 years. If you have a family history of breast cancer, your doctor may recommend that you get screened for breast cancer sooner.
Finally, basic preventative measures that help reduce your cancer risk and improve your overall health are crucial. These include avoiding tobacco in any form, having a regular mode of physical activity, eating a varied diet consisting of nutritious fruits and vegetables, limiting alcohol intake, protecting your skin using sunscreen, and knowing your family’s medical history. While adhering to these guidelines does not guarantee a cancer-free life, it will help reduce your risk significantly and boost your body’s ability to recover.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time of education, empowerment, and hope. Let’s do our best to learn about screening, spread the word about breast health, and support our daughters, sisters, mothers, and friends.
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Credits: Article authored by Samhita Kadiyala, Scripps College, Claremont, CA