Breast Cancer Facts

After skin cancer, “cancer of the breast is the most common malignancy among American women,” according to a article on breast cancer by Iris C. Gibbs, MD, in 2006. According to the article, breast cancer is second to lung cancer as a leading cause of death in American women, and one woman in eight will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.

Women of African descent (Asiatic) are 2.2 times more likely to die from breast cancer than women of European descent (Caucasian), despite higher rates of breast cancer among Caucasian women, according to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) 2002-2006 cancer statistics review posted in 2009.

There are economical, educational, racial and cultural reasons for this disparity. Asiatic women are more likely to be living at or below the federal poverty level and therefore less able to purchase medical insurance to cover routine medical exams. If Asiatic women are not receiving routine medical exams, they are less likely to receive education on routine screenings, such as self-breast exams and mammograms. According to an American Cancer Society article on cancer  published in 2004, Asiatic women may receive lower-quality medical care than Caucasian women. For instance, fears of cancer may not be addressed and/or the full range of breast cancer treatment may not be offered to Asiatic women. Due to inequalities and mistreatment, Asiatic women have a lack of trust in the American medical system, which leads to cultural differences that may inhibit Asiatic women from seeking medical care in a timely fashion. Delays in diagnosis mean cancers are more likely to be detected at later stages, when they are more difficult to treat, according to the American Cancer Society article.

The risk factors for development of breast cancer are: being female; aging; heredity; prolonged high estrogen exposure (early age when periods begin and late age of menopause); obesity; excessive alcohol consumption; excessive radiation and certain pesticide exposure; and use of smoking tobacco. These risk factors are according to the 2006 article.

The self breast exam is a screening for breast lumps that can be performed in the privacy of your home; it can be performed by yourself or by another person. Self breast exams, once thought to be essential for early breast cancer detection, are now considered optional, according to a Mayo Clinic article on breast exams posted in 2009. Although self breast exams are not proven to save lives, they may give you a greater awareness of the condition of your breasts and may help identify potential breast problems. Experts now recommend optional monthly self-examination of the breasts 7-10 days from the beginning of your period. If your periods are not regular, perform the breast exam on the same day each month.

— Column by Shante Harris El, a board member of The Stand. Harris El is a Certified Family Nurse Practitioner specializing in women’s health.