With October approaching, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is just around the corner.
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed malignancy among Canadian women, said Dr. Nancy Nixon, a medical oncologist with Alberta Health Services (AHS). It is crucial, therefore, to promote the importance of breast screening exams and mammograms for middle-aged and older women.
“One in eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of their lifetime, so it’s super common and important to pick it up early,” she said, adding mammograms are effective at detecting breast cancer two years before they become clinically apparent.
“We’re able to pick up breast cancer much earlier than when it would become clinically apparent and spare women a lot of toxic treatments, while still providing them with a cure. I think it’s really important to raise awareness that it’s a common disease that can be easily managed when detected early.”
While mammograms are most important for women between the ages of 50 and 74, Nixon said women in their 40s should also talk to their physician about whether or not they should be screened. For women older than 75, meanwhile, she said AHS still considers mammograms to be important, taking into consideration other comorbidities and overall health status.
There are many signs and symptoms of breast cancer, according to AHS, such as a lump on the breast, crusting, bleeding or rashing on the nipple, unusual nipple discharge or dimpling – thickening of the skin in one area of the breast.
Though women may detect these symptoms on their own, Nixon noted it’s important to realize self-examinations do not replace mammograms in terms of effectively detecting cancer. That said, she added she always counsels her patients to “know their own breasts" and be aware of any changes that take place, either by feeling their own breasts or by examining them in the mirror.
“Of course, any lumps or bumps you should bring to the attention of your family doctor,” she said. “Any nipple changes or discharge is something you would want to have investigated by your physician.”
One of Breast Cancer Awareness Month’s marquee fundraising events is the Canadian Cancer Society’s (CCS) CIBC Run For the Cure, which will take place Oct. 4. Held every October since 1992, the annual charity run typically sees more than 85,000 participants nationally and raises an average of $17 million a year, according to CCS.
The run has been modified this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to CCS, and will be held in a virtual format for the first time. Despite a large-scale event not being able to take place, Nixon said participants can still form a team, do the run on their own and raise money for an important cause.
Events like the CIBC Run For the Cure have been instrumental in improving the survival rates of women diagnosed with breast cancer, she added, as the millions of dollars raised have supported advancements in treatment and detection.
“We’re getting much better at treating breast cancer and improving survival outcomes,” she said. “A big part of that comes from early detection, based on mammogram screening. We’re able to cure a lot more of our patients and use a lot less toxic therapy to do that. We’ve had new medications come out that are used to cure breast cancer, which helps support those improved outcomes.”
Nixon encouraged women to visit screeningforlife.ca to learn more about mammograms and screening for other types of cancer as well.