October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are an estimated 2,443,077 people alive in United States who were diagnosed with Female Breast Cancer from January 1, 2001 to December 31, 2016 (16-year limited duration prevalence as of January 1, 2017).

Breast cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer death in women, following lung cancer. Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women. Additionally, about 1 in 8 U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. This makes breast cancer a serious concern for Women Veterans. There is good news, however, as localized breast cancer has a 99% survival rates if it’s detected early.

On average, every two minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States.

The month of October was designated National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) in 1985, the aim was, and still is, to promote mammography as the most effective weapon in the fight against breast cancer. In 1993, the pink ribbon was established as the symbol for breast cancer.

Over the course of NBCAM, events are organized nationwide to promote awareness of and treatment for breast cancer. Making Strides is the largest network of breast cancer events in the nation that also works to raise funding to help the American Cancer Society fund groundbreaking breast cancer research and provide patient services like free transport to chemotherapy, free places to stay near treatment, and a live 27/7 cancer helpline.

Locally, Making Strides of Sacramento plans to send out invites for registered participants to gather for their commemorative 2020 photo. With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, Making Strides will enforce social distancing, require masks, and limit the event to 100 people on the West Steps of the Capitol. Find more information on how you can participate in Making Strides of Sacramento here.

What is breast cancer?

According to the CDC, breast cancer is a disease in which cells in the breast grow out of control. Dependent on which cells in the breast turn into cancer, there are different kinds; the most common kinds are invasive ductal carcinoma and invasive lobular carcinoma.

  • Invasive ductal carcinoma. The cancer cells grow outside the ducts into other parts of the breast tissue. Invasive cancer cells can also spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body.
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma. Cancer cells spreads from the lobules to the breast tissues that are close by. These invasive cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body.

Other less common kinds are Paget’s disease, medullary, mucinous, and inflammatory breast cancer.

What factors influence risk?

The main factors that influence risk of breast cancer are being female and getting older. Because of this, most women who are 50 to 74 years old should have a screening mammogram every two years. If you are 40 to 49 years old, or think you may have a higher risk of breast cancer, ask your doctor when to have a screening mammogram.

Other risk factors include the following:

  • Changes in breast cancer-related genes (BRCA1 or BRCA2).
  • Having first menstrual period before age 12.
  • Never giving birth, or being older when your first child is born.
  • Starting menopause after age 55.
  • Taking hormones to replace missing estrogen and progesterone in menopause for more than five years.
  • Taking oral contraceptives (birth control pills).
  • A personal history of breast cancer, dense breasts, or some other breast problems.
  • A family history of breast cancer (parent, sibling, or child).
  • Getting radiation therapy to the breast or chest.
  • Being overweight, especially after menopause.

Special Report: COVID-19’s Impact on Breast Cancer Care


What are the warning signs?

Some warning signs of breast cancer are:

  • New lump(s) in the breast or underarm (armpit).
    • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
  • Pain in the breast.

Quiz: How much do you know about Breast Cancer?

What are some tips on getting a mammogram?

If you think you may be at higher risk for breast cancer or have noticed any signs or symptoms, it may be time to schedule a mammogram. Fortunately, the American Cancer Society has seven things to know about getting a mammogram. The following is taken from their info page:

  1. What is a mammogram? A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast that’s used to find breast changes. X-rays were first used to examine breast tissue nearly a century ago. Today, the x-ray machines used for mammograms produce lower energy x-rays and expose the breast to much less radiation compared to those in the past.
  2. Where to Get It. Find a center that specializes in mammograms. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certifies mammogram facilities that meet high professional standards of quality and safety. Ask to see the FDA certificate if one isn’t posted near the receptionist’s desk. And when you find a facility you like, stick with it. Having all your mammograms at the same facility will make it easier for doctors to compare images from one year to the next. If you’ve had mammograms done at other facilities, have those images sent to your new facility.
  3. When to Schedule It. It’s best to schedule your mammogram about a week after your menstrual period. Your breasts won’t be as tender or swollen, which means less discomfort during the x-ray.
  4. What (and What Not) to Wear. Wear a 2-piece outfit because you will need to remove your top and bra. Do not apply deodorant, antiperspirant, powder, lotion, or ointment on or around your chest on the day of your mammogram. These products can appear as white spots on the x-ray.
  5. What to Expect. The entire procedure takes about 20 minutes. The breast is compressed between two plastic plates for a few seconds while an x-ray is taken. It’s repositioned (and compressed again) to take another view. This is then done on the other breast. Flattening the breast can be uncomfortable, but is needed to provide a clearer view.
  6. Getting the Results. You should get your results within 10 days. If you don’t, you should call to ask about them. If doctors find something suspicious, you’ll likely be contacted within a week to take new pictures or get other tests. But that doesn’t mean you have cancer. A suspicious finding may be just dense breast tissue or a cyst. Other times, the image just isn’t clear and needs to be retaken. If this is your first mammogram, your doctor may want to look at an area more closely simply because there is no previous mammogram for comparison.
  7. What You Pay. For uninsured or low-income women, free or low-cost mammogram services are available. Some of these programs are held during National Breast Cancer Month in October, while others are offered year-round. Call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 to find a program near you.

Find a PDF download of the 7 Things to Know About Getting a Mammogram here.

All VA Medical Centers have a Women Veterans Program Manager to help Women Veterans access benefits & health care services. For more information, call VANorCal’s Women’s Health at 1-877-780-0555.

VA Northern California Health Care System Women’s Health

How can you find out more about breast cancer and how to determine your risk for developing breast cancer?

There is no shortage of resources for women and men to access information on breast cancer, diagnosis, and treatment. The following is a listing of sites you can visit for information: