BEZDEK: Simple breast cancer awareness saves lives

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October is a special month — summer is fading, and autumn approaches. The kids are settled into their school routine, and Christmas shopping is still an idea rather than a source of worry.

It is an important time for women across the country, as well. We have a little time to take care of ourselves. This seems to be a common theme among my patients. They are ready to pack away the accoutrements of summer and are carefully watching their children succeed and become more independent.

Many find more energy for creative, career and perhaps physical challenges. I have a captive audience, and am happy to share some advice with my patients on some tools to live a long and healthy life. My mission is simple: preventive medicine.

Let’s do our best to maintain healthy bodies, which is the heart of the message for breast cancer awareness.

In the U.S., breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, with approximately one in every eight women diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives.

It is the second deadliest cancer in women (after lung cancer), and the No. 1 killer in women ages 40 to 59. The American Cancer Society projects that over 200,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and about 40,000 women will die from the disease this year.

So what are we doing about this? A lot and a little.

To clarify, mortality, or death due to breast cancer, decreased by 34 percent from 1990 to 2010 — that’s a lot! This is directly due to screening mammography as well as improved cancer treatment methods — smarter chemotherapy, more focused radiation and improved surgical techniques.

It all starts with a yearly mammogram beginning at the age of 40. Studies show screening mammograms reduce breast cancer death by over 30 percent in women over 50! For women in their 40s, mammograms reduce death due to breast cancer by 15 percent.

Another way to imagine how mammograms are beneficial is: for every 2,000 women in their 40s who have a mammogram, one woman’s life will be saved. For women in their 50s, the number drops to 1,400 mammograms performed to save one life, and for women in their 60s, less than 400 mammograms performed will save one life.

It’s amazing to me that doing so little — taking an hour out of your day for a mammogram — can save so many lives.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Cancer Society recommend women receive an annual mammogram beginning at age 40. It is especially important that women are regularly screened to increase the chance that a breast cancer is detected early before it has spread.

There is no specific age at which mammography screening should be discontinued. As long as a woman is in good health and would be a candidate for breast cancer treatment, she should continue to receive yearly mammography.

Additionally, women should begin seeing a doctor in their 20s for a clinical breast exam. All women should become familiar with both the appearance and feel of their breasts and report any changes promptly to their physician. This is known as “breast self awareness.”

Studies show maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and limiting consumption of alcohol and fatty foods can actually decrease an individual’s risk of breast cancer. As you can see, these small measures — breast self-awareness, clinical breast exams and mammograms — can make a large difference in early detection of breast cancer and initiating life-saving treatment.

Incorporating a healthy diet and exercise into your daily routine is known to reduce the risk of a variety of illnesses, including heart disease and diabetes. Now we can add a reduced risk of breast cancer to that list.

Rachel Bezdek is a doctor and clinical instructor of obstetrics for Rue de Sante Women’s Center in LaPlace. Email her at