Breast Cancer Awareness: Let’s Talk Screening, Survivorship & Support

October 6, 2022
A diverse group of women smiling in jackets outdoors with their arms around one another

Stock photo posed by models: Getty Images

In late September, just a few days shy of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, veteran journalist Katie Couric, 65, went public with the news that she was diagnosed with breast cancer in June. Couric wrote about her diagnosis in a post titled “Why Not Me?” on her website. “Please get your annual mammogram,” she urged. “I was six months late this time. I shudder to think what might have happened if I had put it off longer.”

Except for skin cancer, female breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in the United States. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports that it accounts for 15% of all new cases, with an estimated 287,850 newly diagnosed patients in 2022.

In recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we share important information about the disease, from screening guidelines to risk factors to support resources. 

Breast Cancer Monitoring Tips

Breast cancer is most treatable at an early stage, and regular monitoring is key to catching it early. There are many ways to detect or screen for breast cancer, including:

  • Breast self-exam – A monthly breast self-exam will help you notice changes to your breasts’ texture, size, and skin condition. Women who do breast self-exams know how their breasts normally look and feel and can see changes sooner. Do not hesitate to talk to your healthcare provider if you have a question about your breasts. Learn more about breast self-exams.
  • Clinical breast exam – A doctor checks the breasts, underarms, and collarbone area for abnormalities. A clinical breast exam should be a part of a regular visit to a gynecologist or a primary care doctor.
  • Screening mammogram – A mammogram is a breast x-ray that can show a lump or abnormality. A mammogram can show a breast lump or abnormality before it can be felt. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out when to have a mammogram.  

For some women with certain risk factors, additional breast screening may also be recommended. In her post, Katie Couric shared that a routine breast ultrasound led to her own diagnosis. “Because my breasts are dense, I routinely get an additional screening using a breast ultrasound,” she wrote.

Risk of breast cancer increases with increasing breast density, and mammography is more likely to miss cancer in women with dense breasts, reports the NCI. So, after getting a mammogram, some women with dense breasts may be asked to do follow-up testing, such as a breast ultrasound or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

If you have dense breasts, talk with your healthcare provider about the risks and benefits of supplemental screening. The NCI shares answers to frequently asked questions about dense breasts.

Take the Pledge to Get Screened

Breast Cancer Screening Saves Lives

According to the American College of Radiology, mammography has helped reduce breast cancer mortality in the United States by nearly 40% since 1990. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women who are 50 to 74 years old and are at risk for breast cancer get a mammogram every 2 years. Women who are 40 to 49 years old should consult their healthcare provider about when to start screening and how frequently.

Many women have shared their own stories about the key role a routine mammogram played in their breast cancer diagnosis, leading to timely treatment. Among them is Jennifer, who always makes sure to get her annual mammogram, even though there is not much cancer in her family’s history, she said. In December 2019, thanks to a routine screening, Jennifer learned she had an invasive, fast-growing breast cancer, and she was able to start treatment quickly. “I had no signs, no symptoms,” she noted. “The only way my cancer was found was because of a mammogram.” After treatment and surgery, she added, “I am now cancer-free.”

Heather also learned she had breast cancer because of a routine mammogram. In 2016, she was diagnosed with stage 1 triple negative breast cancer. Like Jennifer, she hadn’t noticed any warning signs. “I always did my regular screenings,” said Heather, who serves as the executive director of our Research and Training Institute at Cancer Support Community.

Because her breast cancer was caught early, Heather was able to consider many treatment options. Since completing treatment, her outcome has been wonderful, she added. Today Heather continues to be a strong advocate for routine breast cancer screening.

"Last year during my annual woman exam, I mentioned to my gynecologist about a lump I had felt in my right breast. She immediately referred me to get a diagnostic mammogram. It turned out to be breast cancer. Thank you to the early detection, I can now say I am a breast cancer survivor. Without [early screening and self-examination], I wouldn't have had the end-results I have now.”

— Marlene 

Types of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer forms in the tissues of the breast. It can occur in both men and women, but it is much more common in females. Different types of breast cancer include:

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – Abnormal cells are present in the breast duct but have not spread beyond the lining of the duct to surrounding tissue. DCIS is noninvasive and is often considered a pre-cancer. It is also most often diagnosed by screening mammograms.
  • Invasive ductal carcinoma – This is the most common type of breast cancer among women. It forms in the tubes that carry milk to the breast. It can be diagnosed on screening mammograms but may also present as a mass you can feel.
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma – This type forms in the glands or lobules of the breast.
  • Inflammatory breast cancer – This type grows in sheets instead of lumps and presents like a rash. Its symptoms are noticeable and usually lead a person to seek medical attention.

When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it’s called metastatic breast cancer. This is stage 4 breast cancer. When breast cancer spreads, it most commonly spreads to the bones, lungs, liver, and brain.

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

Research is improving our knowledge of the causes of breast cancer. While most breast cancer cases develop spontaneously, there are some known risk factors. These include:

  • Family history and genetic susceptibility –
    • About 5%-10% of all breast cancers are caused by a hereditary genetic mutation.
    • Women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
    • People are at higher risk if they have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer on either the maternal or paternal side. This is especially important if any family member was diagnosed with breast cancer before menopause or if any male family member was diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • Personal history of breast abnormalities – Ductal carcinoma in situ and lobular neoplasia are associated with increased risk.
  • Age – The risk increases with age. Most breast cancer cases occur in women older than 60.
  • Age at first menstrual period – Women who had their first menstrual period before age 12 have a slightly increased risk.
  • Breast density – Women with dense breasts may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. This is a risk factor that is currently being investigated further. Practices may vary depending on where you live or seek care.
  • Childbirth – Women who have never given birth or who gave birth to their first child after age 30 are slightly more at risk
  • Race – White women have a greater risk of developing breast cancer than Black women. However, Black women are more likely to have an aggressive subtype of breast cancer.

Signs & Symptoms

As both Jennifer and Heather shared, not every woman will experience signs or symptoms of breast cancer before it is diagnosed. But there are some things you can watch out for. The classic symptom for breast cancer is a lump found in the breast or armpit.

The following symptoms require a medical exam and evaluation:

  • Swelling or lump (mass) in the breast
  • Swelling in the armpit (lymph nodes)
  • Nipple discharge (spontaneous and from one side only)
  • Pain in the nipple
  • Inverted nipple and/or scaly or pitted skin on nipple
  • Unusual breast pain or discomfort

If you experience any of these symptoms, speak with your healthcare provider right away.

Breast Cancer Resources & Support 

Cancer may affect all areas of the patient's life and their loved ones' lives. Our recent research reveals the impact breast cancer can have on a patient’s quality of life and overall distress levels. For example, 35% of participants who joined our Cancer Experience Registry were at risk for anxiety, and 25% were at risk for depression. Additionally, 74% reported that they were not at all to somewhat knowledgeable about financial impact before treatment, and 45% were concerned about eating and nutrition.

“Metastatic breast cancer has taught me to stay in the present, and to be present in each moment… Wow, my life has changed drastically, and I am very sad about it. But on a good note, I am learning through cancer counseling to focus on enjoying each day. Being ‘present’ with the people who are most important in my life brings me a lot of happiness.”

― Sharletta

If you are living with breast cancer or are a caregiver to someone with breast cancer, these resources can help ease the burden of your journey: 

Another place to turn for support is MyLifeLine, CSC's digital support community for people impacted by cancer. MyLifeLine members have access to 14 different discussion boards, including our Living With Breast Cancer board. Members can also create a private support website to keep their friends and family updated about their cancer journey. In addition, they can organize help for things like meals and rides to medical appointments.

For people navigating a cancer diagnosis, MyLifeLine is a one-stop experience, notes Heather. “I think it’s valuable and critical to streamline communication, give updates in a seamless way, and allow yourself to be vulnerable and ask for help,” she says. “All of that helps with your outcome.”

Read an Inspiring Blog Series by Breast Cancer Survivor Amber Havekost