No matter where you go in October, it seems the world is awash in pink. The Breast Cancer Awareness Month campaign was started in 1985 with a simple goal: to raise awareness of the importance of early detection of breast cancer. It seems to have worked as death rates from breast cancer have been steadily falling in the past few decades.
But almost everybody knows someone who’s been affected by breast cancer, which is the most common cancer among women. At some point in their life, 12.3 percent of women, or 1 in 8, will be diagnosed with the disease.
In the spirit of the month of pink, here are five lesser-known facts about breast cancer:
1. The highest risk factors are outside your control
The two highest risk factors are family history and age, according to Dr. Jay Harness, a breast cancer surgeon at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. “A woman’s risk of breast cancer about doubles if she has a first-degree relative with breast cancer,” said Harness, who is also the founder of BreastCancerAnswers.com. First-degree relatives include mothers, sisters or daughters. “This accounts for up to 15 percent of cases.”
“The next highest risk is age,” Harness says. “Half of breast cancer occurs among women aged 62 years or older.”
While those may seem like scary facts, the good news is that many other risk factors have been reduced or eliminated by researchers.
2. Several strides have been made in research and treatment
According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer deaths fell at a rate of about 1.9 percent from 2002 to 2011. When asked what to contribute to this drop, Harness points to multiple developments in the fight.
“Mammogram rates for insured women increased from 29 percent in 1987 to 70 percent in 2010. This is thought to have prevented over 200,000 deaths due to early detection,” Harness says.
He also notes that until 2002, doctors didn’t fully understand the role of hormone replacement therapy, which is often taken to offset the symptoms of menopause. It is now known that hormone replacement therapy increases the risk of breast cancer and also other health problems.
Research has furthermore identified specific gene mutations that increase risk, BRCA1 and BRCA2. This has led to the advent of genetic testing for breast cancer.
3. Breast cancer isn’t a death sentence
Survival rates among those with breast cancer are high. According to the National Cancer Institute, the survival rate five years after diagnosis is 89.2 percent. In fact, survivors of breast cancer are statistically more likely to die from something else, not cancer, according to NCI research in 2008. While it’s no picnic to combat the disease, most women do survive.
4. Treatment options are getting better
When people find that they’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, chemotherapy and surgery are often the first things that come to mind. Harness says that what surprises his patients most is that treatment is often less scary than they think.
“Not all cases require chemotherapy,” he says. “New genomic tests can identify which patients will benefit from chemotherapy.”
Harness also says “most side effects are very well managed, which improves the quality of life during treatment.”
Not everyone needs a mastectomy or complete removal of one or both breasts, either. Harness says that studies have found the survival rates are the same for a mastectomy or a lumpectomy— the removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue.
5. There still are things you can do to decrease risk
Even for high-risk women, there are still ways to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Harness recommends these precautions:
• Limit alcohol to one drink a day.
• Don't smoke.
• Control your weight. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer.
• Be physically active.
• Breast-feed. Breast-feeding may play a role in breast cancer prevention. The longer you breast-feed, the greater the protective effect.
• Limit dose and duration of hormone therapy. Combination hormone therapy for more than five years increases the risk of breast cancer.
• Avoid exposure to radiation and environmental pollution. Seek medical imaging tests only when absolutely necessary.
Lacie Glover writes for NerdWallet Health, a website that helps people reduce their medical bills.