October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time dedicated to increasing coast-to-coast awareness of a disease that has become the most common cancer in women worldwide.

Deborah K. Arnold, M.S.N., RN

For a disease that will affect an estimated 207,000 women this year alone, early detection with prompt treatment and prevention is vital, notes Deborah K. Arnold, M.S.N., RN, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing and a doctoral candidate.

Early treatment begins in the form of screening. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend mammography screening annually for women beginning at age 40.

“The most effective way to detect breast cancer early on is to get high-quality screening mammograms and clinical breast exams regularly,” Arnold says.

Women can also routinely check their own breast for lumps or unusual changes. However, this type of exam should not replace regular mammograms or clinical breast exams.

While early detection and prompt, appropriate treatment can be lifesaving, there is a better, earlier cure: prevention.

For some women, a genetically inherited trait puts them at very high risk for developing breast cancer.

“A woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer is greatly increased if she inherits a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene,” Arnold says. “Such a woman has an increased risk of developing breast cancer at an early age (before menopause) and often has multiple, close family members who have been diagnosed with this disease.”

Armed with this information, women with a family history of breast cancer can make important decisions to actively prevent the disease early on.

Another form of prevention is the prevention of recurrence.

“Women diagnosed with breast cancer, who have completed treatment, face a 6-13 percent risk of getting the disease again,” Arnold says. “Given this information, it is not surprising many breast cancer survivors worry about the possibility of their cancer recurring.”

While recurrence is primarily treated the same way the initial disease is, there is evidence suggesting recurrence risk may be linked to behavioral factors.

“Alcohol use, obesity, exercise and diet are significantly associated with a second round of this potentially deadly disease,” Arnold says. “Maintaining a healthy weight, consuming no more than three alcoholic drinks per day, reducing dietary fat consumption, eating the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables, and getting regular physical activity are not only great ways to possibly prevent breast cancer reappearance, but they are things women can do to feel better, too.”

Perhaps the form of prevention Arnold is most interested in is primary prevention, or not getting the disease in the first place.

“We have come full circle in awareness, and one day this disease will be the exception and not the rule,” Arnold says. “Through strategic awareness, we arm those diagnosed with breast cancer with the necessary tools needed to fight the disease while also providing practical and proactive ways to avoid the life-threatening diagnosis in the first place.”

Arnold’s latest research looks at how stress affects a person’s ability to fight disease, specifically in women diagnosed with breast cancer, and how they emotionally navigate survivorship.

“While pink remains prevalent in the panorama of cancer dialog, we need changes in the direction the research is going,” Arnold says. “We need to know what is causing the disease, and we need a cure.”


— Holly Shive

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