Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, with an incidence that rises dramatically with age. The average age at diagnosis of breast cancer is 61 years, and the majority of woman who die of breast cancer are age 65 years and older. That's why it is so important for women to understand that the risk of getting breast cancer increases as they get older, and the need to be proactive with their breast health.
Roughly one-third of all breast cancer diagnoses are in women over the age of 70, however, only around nine percent of these cases are found through early breast cancer screening. This is compared to nearly 50% of cases detected through early screening in slightly younger women, aged 50-70. That's why we are calling attention to the importance of breast cancer awareness in aging women, and the need to stay "Breast Aware" and make breast health a priority with age.
Being "Breast Aware"
Breast cancer is generally slow-growing, especially in older women, but if it is undetected for many years, once it is finally detected, it can be much more aggressive. That's why it is vital that all women, and especially older women, are "breast aware" and stay on top of their breast health. This can be done by giving yourself regular breast exams, and having regular check ups with your doctor. Although it might be a little harder to notice changes in your breasts the older you get, it is extremely important to be diligent and aware of your body, to go for regular screenings, and to report anything unusual to your doctor. Women age 50-70 should go for breast screening every three years, and can phone their local screening unit for an appointment. Remember: early detection saves lives.
Learn how to give yourself a breast exam here
What can I do to reduce my risk of breast cancer?
If you're concerned about breast cancer and your risk as you age, you might be wondering if there are steps you can take toward breast cancer prevention. Some risk factors, such as family history, can't be changed. However, there are lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk. Lifestyle changes have been shown in studies to decrease breast cancer risk even in high-risk and older women. The following are steps you can take to lower your risk:
- Limit alcohol. The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer. The general recommendation — based on research on the effect of alcohol on breast cancer risk — is to limit yourself to 1 drink per day or less, as even small amounts increase risk.
- Don't smoke. Accumulating evidence suggests a link between smoking and breast cancer risk, particularly in premenopausal women. In addition, not smoking is one of the best things you can do for your overall health.
- Control your weight. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer. This is especially true if obesity occurs in older women, particularly after menopause.
- Be physically active. Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight, which, in turn, helps prevent breast cancer. For most healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 2 hours per week of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, plus strength or bodyweight training at least twice a week.
- Eat healthy and avoid processed meat. Eating a healthy diet could decrease your risk of some types of cancer, as well as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. For example, women who eat a Mediterranean diet have been shown to have a reduced risk of breast cancer in some studies. The Mediterranean diet focuses on mostly on plant-based foods - fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, as well as healthy fats, like olive oil, and fish rich in omega-3 oils instead of red meat. The World Health Organization states that all processed meat is carcinogenic (something that causes cancer), and lists red meat as being a probable carcinogen, so in general, processed and red meat should be avoided, especially in aging and high-risk women.
- Limit dose and duration of hormone therapy. If you're taking hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms, ask your doctor about other options. Combination hormone therapy for more than three to five years increases the risk of breast cancer. You might be able to manage your symptoms with non-hormonal therapies and medications. If you decide that the benefits of short-term hormone therapy outweigh the risks, use the lowest dose that works for you and continue to have your doctor monitor the length of time you are taking hormones.
- For younger women who might be concerned about using Birth Control pills, studies show that current or recent use of birth control pills does slightly increase the risk of breast cancer compared to women who have never used the pill. However, this extra risk is quite small because the risk of breast cancer for most young women is already low. So, even with a slight increase in risk, younger women using the pill are still unlikely to get breast cancer. And once women stop taking the pill, their risk begins to decrease and after about 10 years, returns to that of women who have never taken the pill. It is also worth noting that in most studies to date, women took older, higher-dose forms of the pill, and almost all of the pills today have lower dosages of hormones, and are thus likely to pose even less of a risk.
- Breast-feed. Breast-feeding might play a role in breast cancer prevention. The longer you breast-feed, the greater the protective effect.
- Avoid exposure to radiation and environmental pollution. Medical-imaging methods, such as computerized tomography, use high doses of radiation. While more studies are needed, some research suggests a link between breast cancer and radiation exposure. Reduce your exposure by having such tests only when absolutely necessary.
The Silver Lining
Women today are living longer than ever before. The average life expectancy for women is 87 years old, so it is of increasing importance to be aware of changes in our bodies as we age, because being proactive and being “breast aware” can save our lives. And it is important to understand that getting breast cancer at an older age does not have to mean you have received a death sentence. Older women can get just as much benefit from breast cancer treatment as younger women, and breast cancer treatment has vastly improved over the past 30 years, both in its effectiveness and managing side effects. Know that if you are diagnosed, being proactive in your treatment and keeping a positive mindset can help save your life. Older women who are in good health, and who are diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer are likely to live for many more healthy and happy years.
One Last Thing
While breast cancer is most commonly thought of as a woman's disease, it can occur in men. Male breast cancer is a rare cancer that forms in the male breast tissue. Although it can occur at any age, it is most common in older men. Like women, men diagnosed with breast cancer at an early stage have a very good chance of curing it. Unlike women, men with breast cancer do not always realize the changes or show unusual signs or symptoms, such as a breast lump. Because of this, male breast cancers are typically diagnosed when the disease is more advanced. So this means it is especially important to be proactive with your health as you age, no matter your gender.
Spread the word this October. Be proactive with your breast health and get checked out!