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NEWS | Nov. 16, 2023

Self-screening key to early detection of breast cancer

By Aime Lykins, PSNS & IMF Public Affairs

Breast Cancer Awareness Month, held annually in October, aims to promote screening and prevention of the disease. Known best for its pink theme color, the observance features a number of campaigns and programs focusing on supporting people diagnosed with breast cancer, educating people about breast cancer risk factors, and stressing the importance of regular screening.

Within the U.S., breast cancer affects one in eight women and 2.3 million women worldwide. It is the second most common cancer among women in the U.S. and is the leading killer of women aged 40 to 59. Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than women of any other racial or ethnic group. Experts believe that it is partially because about one in five Black women is diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, more than any other racial or ethnic group.

Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for about 10-15% of all breast cancers. The term triple-negative refers to the fact that the cancer cells don’t have estrogen or progesterone receptors and also don’t make any or much of the protein called HER2. HER2 is a protein that helps breast cancer cells grow quickly. These cancers tend to be more common in women younger than age 40, who are Black, or who have a BRCA1 mutation.

BRCA1 is a gene on chromosome 17 that normally helps to suppress cell growth. A person who inherits certain mutations in a BRCA1 gene has a higher risk of getting breast, ovarian, prostate, and other types of cancer. Anyone concerned about the possibility that they may have a harmful variant in the BRCA1 gene should discuss their concerns with their health care provider or a genetic counselor.

Although breast cancer is much more common in women, breast cancer can affect men, too. The CDC reports that about 2,710 American men are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer, and about 530 are expected to die from the disease this year. But lack of awareness and stigma can be barriers to detection and care.

The National Cancer Institute reports that the survival for men with breast cancer is similar to that for women when their stage and diagnosis is the same. Breast cancer in men, however, is often diagnosed at a later stage. Cancer found at a later stage may be less likely to be cured, so early detection is key.

Clinical studies have shown the risk for breast cancer is due to a combination of factors. Primary factors that influence risk include being a woman and aging. Most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years or older. Having a risk factor does not mean you will get the disease, and not all risk factors have the same effect.

There are some risk factors beyond an individual’s control, such as aging, genetic mutations, reproductive history, breast density and family history. However, there are other risk factors an individual can control, which include remaining physically active with both cardiovascular exercise and weight training, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing alcohol consumption and not smoking.

Self-screening can be a helpful first step in breast cancer detection. By performing monthly breast self-exams, changes in the breast can be more easily recognized. Be sure to talk to a healthcare professional if anything unusual is detected.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation recommends self-screening for the following:

Nipple tenderness or a lump, or thickening, in or near the breast or underarm area.

A change in the skin texture or an enlargement of pores in the skin of the breast. (Some describe this as similar to an orange peel’s texture.)

Any unexplained change in the size or shape of the breast.

Dimpling anywhere on the breast.

Unexplained swelling or shrinkage of the breast (especially if on one side only).

Recent asymmetry of the breasts. Although it is common for women to have one breast that is slightly larger than the other, if the onset of asymmetry is recent, it should be checked.

Nipple that is turned slightly inward or inverted

Any nipple discharge—particularly clear or bloody discharge. It is also important to note that a milky discharge that is present when a woman is not breastfeeding should be checked by her doctor, although it is not linked with breast cancer.

Although there is no known cure or failsafe prevention method, early detection can make a big difference in treating the disease. Cancer diagnosis is emotional and each person processes feelings differently.

Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility offers free, confidential counseling for those who need to talk about the feelings associated with a cancer diagnosis for themselves or a loved one. Command counselors can be reached at 360-340-2745 and the Civilian Employee Assistance Program can be reached at 360-476-5673.