Each October, I begin to notice the abundance of little pink touches - the pink bumper sticker on a neighbor’s car, the pink lapel pin on the supermarket clerk’s vest, or the pink patch on my niece’s backpack. October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and with every pink ribbon I saw, I’m reminded that each of those little ribbons could represent one of the more than 230,000 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year - and that breast cancer is just as prevalent today as ever.
Most people know at least one person who has been directly affected by breast cancer. It is the second most common cancer among women in the U.S., and it’s the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, the chance of a woman being diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life is close to 1 in 8.
As with a variety of other cancers, the African American community is disproportionately affected by breast cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that, while the overall incidence rate of breast cancer is 10 percent higher in white women than African Americans, women in our community are 37 percent more likely to die from the disease - often because they are less likely to get the care they need to overcome the condition. Luckily, early detection can vastly improve a woman’s chances of survival, and there are easy steps that can be taken to help catch breast cancer early on.
While clinical and self-conducted breast exams are helpful tools for detection, getting a regular mammogram is the best way to catch breast cancer before it spreads. Mammograms - an X-ray picture of the breast - can show cancer when it’s too small for you or your doctor to feel. By helping to detect early-stage cancers, mammograms can identify cancer when it is most treatable.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women over 40 should have a screening every one to two years. However, if you have a family history of breast cancer, you may want to talk to your doctor about beginning annual screenings earlier. Additionally, African American women are more likely to contract the disease at an early age - about one-third are under the age of 50.
If a friend or loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer, there are many ways to provide support. Even little things, like showing up with a homemade meal or accompanying her to a doctor’s appointment, can go a long way toward a patient’s recovery. In fact, studies show that support from formal and informal sources greatly improves the quality of life for patients battling the disease.
More than ever, medicines also have the power to provide hope to cancer patients. A recent report by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) revealed 900 medicines in development to treat cancer, including 91 for breast cancer.
Patients who need help affording their prescription medicines for breast cancer and other conditions can turn to the Partnership for Prescription Assistance (PPA). Since its launch in April 2005, the PPA has helped connect more than 5 million patients in need to programs that provide either free or nearly free medicines.
As you notice those pink ribbons being put away until next October, remember the mothers, daughters, sisters and friends that they represent. Remember the women in your life who deserve to live in a world without breast cancer, and sport some pink yourself, so that we might find ourselves closer to a cure.
Larry Lucas is a retired vice president for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).