October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I think I can confidently say that ALL of us have in some way been touched by breast cancer; either we have had a very personal experience with it, or we know someone who has. I lost my cousin, Kim, six years ago to breast cancer that had metastasized throughout her body. She had regular, yearly mammograms; however, one year, after her annual mammogram, she got the call that no one wants – the call to come back for further testing. Her mammogram showed a lump the size of a tennis ball! Her previous year’s mammogram showed NO LUMP. By the time she died two years later at the age of 50, her cancer had spread to her spine, her bones, her brain.

Breast cancer is the 2nd most common form of cancer in women, with 1 in 8 women born today expected to get breast cancer at some point in their lives. A woman’s risk of breast cancer nearly doubles if she has a first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. However, less than 15% of women who get breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with it. That means that 85% of women who get breast cancer have no family history! The most significant risk factors for breast cancer are gender (being a woman) and age (growing older). There are other risk factors, a few of which are: obesity, hormone therapy, and never having been pregnant. While these statistics are scary and stories like my cousin, Kim’s, are extreme, there IS good news; if caught early, breast cancer IS treatable and most women WILL survive!

The most common symptom of breast cancer is a painless lump or mass. But according to the American Cancer Society other symptoms can include swelling; skin irritation; pain in the nipple or breast; an inward turning nipple; redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin; and nipple discharge that isn’t breast milk. It’s important to be familiar with your own breasts so that if you notice any changes, you can report them to your physician right away. This is why, in addition to regular mammograms, monthly self-exams are still important too. If Kim had been performing monthly self-exams, her lump would have surely been detected long before it could have grown to the size of a tennis ball. The American Cancer Society suggests women begin getting yearly mammograms at the age of 45; other experts suggest beginning at the age of 40. Talk to your doctor today to evaluate your risk factors and see what they recommend for you.

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