Breast Cancer Awareness Month: What You Need to Know

Published October 19th, 2020 by Dr. Kaylea Swearingen, PharmD
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

I never planned on becoming a breast cancer survivor because, like most people, I never planned on having cancer. When you're a young woman, breast cancer is the last thing on your mind. I naively believed it only happened to older women, and there was certainly no room in my busy life for such an interruption.  I was 34 years of age when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and about to learn that cancer is no respecter of age.

Breast Cancer Awareness

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is an annual opportunity to increase awareness of the disease.  Awareness helps people learn about the risk factors, ways to reduce their own risk, symptoms to watch out for, and what kind of screening they should be receiving.

What is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is cancer that develops in the breast cells.  Cancer occurs when changes take place in the genes that regulate growth.  These changes cause cells to divide and multiply in an uncontrolled way.  Most breast cancers start in the milk glands (lobules) or the ducts of the breast.

In the early stages, breast cancer may appear not to cause any symptoms because the tumor is too small to be felt.  The first sign is typically a lump in the breast that was not there before, but not all lumps are cancer.  Some of the symptoms of breast cancer may include:

  • Breast tissue thickening
  • Breast pain
  • Swelling
  • Abnormal or spontaneous nipple discharge

If you experience these symptoms, it doesn't automatically mean you have breast cancer as a benign cyst could also cause a lump.  However, if you find a lump in your breast or are experiencing any other symptoms, you should contact your doctor for further examination.

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How Common is Breast Cancer?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women.  According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), approximately 1 in 8 women (13%) will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Invasive breast cancer is cancer that has spread from the glands or ducts to another part of the breast tissue. Approximately 1 in 38 women (2.6%) will die from breast cancer. 

Although it is rare, men can also get breast cancer.  According to the CDC, about 1 in every 100 breast cancers diagnosed is found in a man. 

What are the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer?

Some risk factors for breast cancer cannot be avoided, such as family history.  While others, like alcohol intake, are lifestyle choices that can be changed.  Having any of these risk factors does not mean you automatically will develop breast cancer.

Risk factors for breast cancer include:

  • Age: your risk of developing breast cancer increases with age
  • Having dense breast tissue: dense breast tissue increases your risk as well as makes mammograms difficult to read
  • Alcohol: drinking increased amounts of alcohol increases your risk
  • Genetics: women with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are more likely to develop breast cancer
  • Gender: women are more likely to develop breast cancer than men
  • Family history: having a close relative with breast cancer increases your risk, but you can still develop breast cancer even without a family history of the disease
  • Pregnancy: either never being pregnant or having your first baby after age 35 increases your risk
  • Menstruation: starting your period before age 12 or starting menopause after age 55 will increase the risk of developing breast cancer

How Can Breast Cancer Be Prevented?

While some risk factors are out of your control (e.g., family history), making healthy lifestyle choices, staying up to date on screenings, and any other preventative measures recommended by your doctor may help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.

Breast cancer screening

Staying up to date on regular mammograms can decrease the odds of having breast cancer go undetected.  According to the American College of Physicians (ACP), the following general recommendations are for women at average risk of breast cancer:

  • Between the ages of 40 and 49: annual mammograms are not recommended
  • Between the ages of 50 and 74: having a mammogram every other year is recommended
  • 75 and older: mammograms are no longer recommended

The ACS has a different set of recommendations.  According to the ACS, starting at age 40, women should have the option to begin annual mammograms.  At age 45, women should have yearly mammograms and move to every other year, starting at age 55.

These are just guidelines, and each woman is different, so it is best to speak with your doctor to see what screening option is best for you.

Breast self-exam

Many women complete a self-exam of their breasts once a month.  Completing this routine exam can help you familiarize yourself with what your breasts look like typically and allow you to notice any changes. provides steps to help guide you through a self-exam. 

The Bottom Line

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, allowing for an excellent opportunity to learn more about the disease.  The key to awareness is education.  Learning about risk factors, signs and symptoms, and screening recommendations are essential steps for early detection.

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women, and while rare, it still can occur in men.

A few risk factors for breast cancer include family history, alcohol intake, genetics, and age.

Following breast cancer screening recommendations and routine breast self-exams are a few ways to help reduce your risk of breast cancer going undetected.


My story.  Journeying beyond breast cancer website. Accessed September 30, 2020.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month. National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc website. Accessed September 30, 2020.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Updated September 14, 2020. Accessed September 30, 2020.

Breast cancer statistics.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Updated June 8, 2020.  Accessed September 30, 2020.

Breast cancer facts and figures. American Cancer Society website. Accessed September 30, 2020.

Qaseem A, Lin JS, Mustafa RA, Horwitch CA, Wilt TJ; Clinical Guidelines Committee of the American College of Physicians. Screening for Breast Cancer in Average-Risk Women: A Guidance Statement From the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2019 Apr 16;170(8):547-560. doi: 10.7326/M18-2147. Epub 2019 Apr 9. PMID: 30959525.

Oeffinger KC, Fontham ET, Etzioni R, Herzig A, Michaelson JS, Shih YC, Walter LC, Church TR, Flowers CR, LaMonte SJ, Wolf AM, DeSantis C, Lortet-Tieulent J, Andrews K, Manassaram-Baptiste D, Saslow D, Smith RA, Brawley OW, Wender R; American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer Screening for Women at Average Risk: 2015 Guideline Update From the American Cancer Society. JAMA. 2015 Oct 20;314(15):1599-614. doi: 10.1001/jama.2015.12783. Erratum in: JAMA. 2016 Apr 5;315(13):1406. PMID: 26501536; PMCID: PMC4831582.

Breast Self-Exam. website. Updated October 24, 2019. Accessed September 30, 2020.

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