Chances are you've seen individuals or groups promoting breast cancer awareness, often by wearing pink ribbons or T-shirts. Sports teams, schools, and communities worldwide participate in Breast Cancer Awareness Month each October by organizing events or fundraisers throughout the 31-day timespan. Some companies and retailers also offer special promotions or dedicate a portion of their profits to breast cancer charities in support of various initiatives.

However, breast cancer awareness goes far beyond just wearing a pink ribbon or rounding up your purchase at the register. Because early detection is key in the fight against breast cancer, understanding your risk, common symptoms, and current screening guidelines can make an impactful difference for you and your loved ones.

Overview

What Is Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an annual international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities every October to increase understanding of the disease. Awareness efforts also help raise funds for research into its causes, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and cure.

"The goal of Breast Cancer Awareness month is to educate the public about the risk and symptoms of breast cancer, encourage early detection and screening for breast cancer, and support those affected by breast cancer," said Jade Jones, MD, medical oncologist at Emory's Winship Cancer Institute and assistant professor in the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "Moreover, we hope to make the public aware of the research being performed to cure breast cancer and inform them how they can get involved through fundraising, advocacy, and other support services."

History

When Was Breast Cancer Awareness Month Started?

The history of breast cancer awareness dates back to 1985 when the American Cancer Society launched its first official campaign to increase awareness of the disease. Betty Ford, an inspirational leader in the fight against breast cancer, was chosen as the public face of the campaign. As the wife of the 38th President, Gerald Ford, her support as a survivor had a profound effect on the nation and made breast cancer awareness a priority for many.

In 1991, the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Coalition was formed, uniting more than 70 national organizations dedicated to increasing public knowledge about breast cancer. Since then, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has evolved into what it is today: an internationally recognized annual event that brings attention to the disease and its devastating effects.

Prevalence

How Common is Breast Cancer?

Around 266,400 Americans are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Cancer Institute estimates that over 300,000 new cases will be diagnosed in the United States in 2023. Although 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, men are also known to get the disease.

Data from The Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program of the National Institutes of Health indicates that the 5-year survival rate for female breast cancer from 2013 to 2019 was 90.8%, a number that continues to increase with new advancements in diagnosis, research, and treatments.

Screening Recommendations

What Are the Breast Cancer Screening Recommendations?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that women aged 40-54 years should have a mammogram annually, and those aged 55 years and older should have one every two years. However, your healthcare provider may advise a different approach based on your individual risk factors for breast cancer.

If you’re at high risk for the disease, the ACS recommends that women aged 30 to 44 years talk to their doctor about when to start mammograms and how often they should have them. A yearly mammogram and breast MRI may sometimes be recommended starting at age 30 years.

"Some women have a higher risk of breast cancer than the general population and may be required to start screening earlier than 40 years of age," Dr. Jones said. "An example is women with genetic mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. These are mutations that patients are born with and inherited from their mom or dad."

Symptoms

What Are the Symptoms of Breast Cancer?

Even in the early years of breast cancer awareness, campaigns have focused heavily on education. Knowing and understanding the symptoms of breast cancer can help detect it in its earliest stages, when treatment is most successful. That's why it's crucial to be aware of breast cancer symptoms and be proactive about getting screened if you’re at risk.

The most common symptoms of breast cancer can include:

Spreading Awareness

What Happens During Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, many organizations come together to help spread awareness and increase education about breast cancer. People are encouraged to:

  • Get screened for the disease

  • Learn more about its symptoms and risk factors

  • Understand treatment options if diagnosed

Many individuals and groups also host fundraisers or special events to raise money for research into treatments and a potential cure. This includes walks, runs, and other community activities that unite people in support of those affected by the disease.

Finally, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time for reflection on how far we’ve come in the fight against breast cancer. It’s an opportunity to recognize survivors, pay tribute to those lost to the disease, and celebrate the progress made in this fight.

Prevention

What Can Be Done to Prevent Breast Cancer and Improve Outcomes?

Breast Cancer Awareness Month aims to raise awareness about the risk factors and symptoms of breast cancer but also advocates for preventive measures that can reduce your risk, including:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables

  • Avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption

  • Limiting your exposure to environmental pollutants

  • Exercising regularly

  • Getting regular checkups and screenings

  • Performing self-breast between doctor visits

Knowing your family history and understanding your individual risk factors is vitally important, said Richard Reitherman, MD, PhD, board-certified radiologist and medical director of breast imaging at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “Ask until you find out. If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer diagnosed in a first- or second-degree, you are not at average risk,” Dr. Reitherman said. This includes your blood relatives, like your mother, sister, child, aunt, or grandmother on the paternal or maternal side.

Screening recommendations may be based on your affected family members' age at diagnosis, type of relative or mutation, and other personal factors, Dr. Reitherman said. There are various testing options, but the best approach for you may vary depending on your risk profile. By understanding your personal risk factors, you can make more informed decisions about your care.

This article was originally published October 2, 2023 and most recently updated October 24, 2023.
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Lindsay Modglin, Medical Writer:  
Maryam Lustberg, MD, MPH, Director of the Breast Center and Chief of Breast Medical Oncology: