Breast health is important all year long, but October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is a timely opportunity to remind yourself how to identify breast cancer early, when it’s most likely to be treatable and before the cancer spreads to other parts of your body.

Unfortunately, the older you are, the greater your risk of breast cancer. That’s why breast cancer awareness — including knowing the risk factors, signs and symptoms — is especially important for senior women.

How Cancer Happens

Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells take over healthy cells. These damaged cells build up into a mass that may be a lump, growth or tumor. Lumps in the breast aren’t always cancerous; you could have a cyst, abscess, benign tumor, or other irregularity. However, if a lump or tumor is malignant, those cancer cells can invade other cells in your body (or metastasize) and cause the cancer to begin damaging other parts of your body.

Risk Factors

Most breast cancer patients can’t pinpoint the exact cause of their cancer, but a growing body of breast cancer research shows there are certain risk factors that can increase your chance of getting breast cancer. Some you can control; others you can’t.

Gender, age, and race are three factors you can’t change; your risk is higher if you’re female, over the age of 55, and Caucasian. Certain genetic mutations, a family history of breast cancer, and having had cancer previously yourself are also risk factors, as are reproductive variables like early menstruation and late menopause.

If you had radiation therapy to your chest or take hormonal therapy (such as what is commonly prescribed for menopause), your risk is higher. Having dense breast tissue can also elevate your risk.

Several lifestyle factors are also thought to increase your risk of breast cancer, including limited physical activity, poor eating habits, alcohol consumption, obesity, childbirth later in life, and not having children.

Signs and Symptoms

Often, but not always, you’ll be able to see or feel an unusual bump or texture in your breast tissue or nipple that could be a sign of breast cancer. It’s important to note that many of the symptoms have other explanations or causes, so it’s always a good idea to consult a physician if you discover anything that concerns you. Watch for:

  • A lump, whether painful or not, within the breast or lymph nodes near your armpit
  • Changes in the pores or skin texture, such as dimpling, scaliness or an uneven texture like an orange peel
  • Redness, swelling or changes in the size or shape of the breast
  • New asymmetry (one breast suddenly larger or smaller than the other)
  • Clear or bloody discharge from the nipple

Early Detection

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, 63% of women with breast cancer are diagnosed before the cancer spreads; the 5-year survival rate for this early detection is 99%. Given this prognosis, detecting cancer early is your best line of defense.

You can monitor your breast health by making a habit of monthly self-exams. Regular self-exams help you know your own body so it’s easier to identify changes. A clinical breast exam is performed by a doctor, using methods similar to the self-exam to look and feel for lumps or other abnormalities.

Other forms of breast exams can identify cancer before it can be seen or felt. Two common tests are mammograms (which are essentially x-rays of the breast tissue) and magnetic resonance imaging or an MRI, which uses radio waves to evaluate the breast. Your physician can help you determine which type of screening is best for you and how often you should repeat it.

Diagnosis and Treatment

With an early diagnosis, your prognosis is generally much more favorable, and breast cancer survivors can and do go on to live productive and healthy lives. If a screening reveals cancer, your doctor will review your breast cancer treatment options, including potential side effects. Treatment plans vary among the different types of breast cancer, so a consultation with your doctor is your best first step.

Make Healthy Living a Way of Life

At Grace Ridge, our residents’ health and wellness is our top priority. In fact, many of our most popular amenities — like membership at the 26,000-square-foot Phifer Wellness Center — are designed to make it easy for you to enjoy a healthy and fulfilling retirement. Learn more about our healthy living programs and living options at Grace Ridge by contacting us today.