October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer affecting women worldwide. In 2010, it was estimated that approximately 1.6 million women developed breast cancer. Current incidence rates for the disease indicate that 12.4% of women born in the United States will develop breast cancer in their lifetime; this equates to approximately 1 in 8 women. A common misconception is that men do not develop breast cancer. While overall it is rare, men can, in fact, develop breast cancer. Male breast cancer is estimated to make up about one percent of all breast cancer cases seen in the United States, which accounted for approximately 2,240 new cases this year.

Age is the number one risk factor in the general population for developing cancer. The majority of cancer seen in the general population occurs by chance; however, it has been shown that having a family history (both maternal and paternal) of cancer can also increase an individual’s risk of developing the disease. More specifically, there are several risk factors that increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer, including having dense breast tissue, early menstruation (younger than 12 years old), late menopause (older than 55 years old), obesity, and high alcohol intake. There are also risk factors for men, including liver disease, exposure to large amounts of radiation, obesity, high alcohol intake, and certain genetic conditions that increase the amount of breast tissue (such as Klinefelter’s syndrome). The strongest risk factor by far is having a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. Mutations in either one of these genes strongly predispose individuals to breast cancer as well as other types of cancer. 

A major goal of breast cancer awareness month is to promote breast health, namely breast cancer screening. Screening for breast cancer allows for early detection (i.e. before signs and symptoms appear) and increases the 5-year survival rate. The American Cancer Society screening recommendations for breast cancer include: yearly mammograms in women beginning at age 40, yearly clinical breast exams (CBEs) for women in their 40s or older, and CBEs every 3 years for women in their 20s to 30s. While there are no specific recommendations for men, it is important for men to speak with their physicians if they experience any early signs or symptoms of breast cancer, such as a lump. Screening recommendations are different for women and men who are known to have a BRCA gene mutation. For individuals who have a strong family history, screening typically begins 10 years earlier than the youngest cancer diagnosis in the family.

Visit http://www.cancer.net/ and http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/breast to learn more about breast cancer. To spread the word or to donate, visit http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/. Data and statistics listed can be found through the above websites and on the Susan G. Komen site at http://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/Statistics.html.