Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. More than 25 years ago, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month began to promote awareness of breast cancer issues. A collaboration of national public service organizations, professional medical associations, and government agencies joined together to form National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or NBCAM, to promote awareness and share information. 

Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer found in American women.

Second only to skin cancer, the rate of women developing breast cancer each year has stayed the same for the last decade. According to the National Cancer Institute, avoiding certain risk factors and increasing protective factors may help prevent cancer. Scientists continue to look at factors that can increase or decrease the risk of developing cancer, and at this point they have determined the following risks and possible protective factors. 

Factors That May Increase the Risk of Breast Cancer:


Hormones play a major role in different processes in our body. Estrogen is a hormone that helps the body to develop, and that is responsible for female sex characteristics. Estrogen levels are highest in women during their childbearing (menstruating) years, with levels decreasing with menopause. Women who began menstruating early, or do not begin menopause until later in life, increase the number of years that breast tissue is exposed to estrogen. Women who become pregnant later in life or never become pregnant also should be aware of the risks of prolonged estrogen exposure.

Hormone Therapy

Women who have been given hormone therapy, or hormone replacement therapy, to replace estrogen, progestin, or both (such as postmenopausal women or those whose ovaries have been removed), are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Studies have shown that halting these hormonal therapies decreases cancer risk. 

Radiation Exposure

Radiation therapy has been used to treat Hodgkin's disease, but studies have shown that this therapy can increase a women's risk of breast cancer. Exposure to radiation, such as a chest x-ray, can increase cancer risks, particularly if the radiation therapy or exposure occurred during puberty, or before 20 years of age.


If you are a postmenopausal women who is obese, your risks for breast cancer are elevated, even if you have not undergone hormone replacement therapy. This is one more in a long list of health reasons to maintain a healthy body weight at every age and stage of life. 


According to the National Cancer Institute, a women's risk of developing breast cancer rises as the amount of alcohol consumed rises. 

Genetic Inherited Risks

Changes in certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, passed on to women increase their risk of breast cancer. These women may develop breast cancer at an earlier age than women without changes to these genes. If you have a family history of breast cancer, be sure to talk to your doctor about this risk.

Protective Factors That May Decrease the Risk of Breast Cancer:


Women with high-risk breast cancer who engage in regular exercise before their cancer diagnosis and after treatment were less likely to have their cancer return or to die compared with women who were inactive, a recent study found.

Premenopausal women of normal weight who exercise four or more hours a week have shown the greatest decrease in breast cancer risk. Exercise may decrease hormone levels, making this an important factor in overall and breast health.


Estrogen levels become lower during pregnancy, and women who breastfeed maintain these lower estrogen levels longer than women who do not. Women who have had their first full-term pregnancy before the age of 20 also appear to have a lower risk of breast cancer later in life. Decreasing the length of time that breast tissue is exposed to estrogen seems to be a factor in helping to prevent breast cancer.

Aromatase Inhibitors

Aromatase inhibitors block the action of an ezyme called aromatase, which is used to make estrogen in the body. Women with an increased risk of breast cancer, such as postmenopausal women with a personal history of breast cancer, may decrease that risk by taking aromatase inhibitors, which decrease the amount of estrogen made in the body.

Prophylactic Mastectomy or Oophorectomy

Some women with very high risks of developiing breast cancer may elect to have a prophylactic mastectomy (the removal of both breasts when there are no signs of cancer), or a prophylactic oophorectomy (the removal of both ovaries when there are no signs of cancer). Although both of these procedures can lower cancer risks, it is very important to discuss these in depthly with both medical professionals and counselors, and  have professional cancer risk assessments done. These procedures can be life altering, and many other long-term effects can accompany them. These are extreme measures of risk management not to be taken lightly.

This year, actress Angelina Jolie brought global media attention to prophylactic mastectomies when she elected to have her breasts removed to decrease her risk of developing breast cancer. 


Fenretinide is a type of retinoid, or vitamin A. Postmenopausal women with a family history of breast cancer that have been given fenretinide have shown decreased risks of breast cancer. Fenretinide may be effective by causing a wax-like substance known as ceramide to build up in tumor cells and kill them. This retinoid does have some potential harmful side effects; long term use may lead to night blindness and skin disorders. Pregnant women must avoid fenretinide because it can harm a developing fetus. 

October may be designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but breast cancer affects both women and men all year long. It is important to know your risks, your family history, and to speak to a medical professional about risk factors, screening, and testing. 

Melissa Zimmerman, Healthy Goods


National Beast Cancer Awareness Month; About;; 

National Cancer Institute at the National Institute for Health; What is Prevention?

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