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American Cancer Society study finds women have many misconceptions about breast cancer

Monday, October 8, 2001

Study finds many women erroneously feel greatest chance to develop disease is between 30 and 49; in reality, risk increases with age.

A new survey just released by the American Cancer Society shows many women are uninformed about their personal risk surrounding breast cancer, a disease which is the second leading cause of cancer death among women.

According to the survey, nearly half of the respondents believed women in the United States have a 30 to 50 percent chance of developing breast cancer, while two-thirds believed the risk is greater than 20 percent.

In fact, the American Cancer Society (ACS) said the average lifetime risk for breast cancer is approximately 11 percent.

In addition, most women erroneously thought the risk for getting breast cancer is greatest between the ages of 30 and 49, when in reality, the risks increase with age.

Approximately 77 percent of new cases and 84 percent of breast cancer deaths reported between 1994 and 1998 happened in women over 50 years of age.

Lori Neuhauser, a coordinator with the ACS Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, said the study reveals many women are uninformed about their personal risk.

"This important research shows there is a lot of information out there about breast cancer, which women are not able to easily understand in terms of their personal risk," Neuhauser said. "The American Cancer Society encourages women to talk to their doctors about what breast cancer risk means to them personally."

Jean Anderson, a survivorship coordinator who has worked at the ACS branch in Storm Lake for three years, said she thinks the research also shows people may be more inclined to undergo an examination for breast cancer, especially after the age of 40, when women are advised to have annual mammograms.

"I think this might show that people are more apt nowadays to get checked sooner," Anderson said. "If that's the case, then that is great. We know that if people get early mammograms, then the risk goes down, and that's what we want to see."

There are several early warning signs for breast cancer, and the ACS said women experiencing any one of these should see their health care provider immediately.

Persistent breast changes, such as a lump, thickening, swelling, dimpling, skin irritation, distortion, retraction, scaliness, ulceration or pain and tenderness of the nipple are all warning symptoms, and lymph nodes under the armpit and above the collarbones which can be felt may also indicate a spread of breast cancer.

Anderson said their organization uses a three-tiered approach to disseminate the message of breast cancer awareness and across northwest Iowa, as it sponsors the Reach to Recovery, Look Good... Feel Better and tlc programs.

Reach to Recovery is a one-to-one peer program of breast cancer survivors trained to respond to concerns of women who are going through breast cancer diagnosis or treatment, while Look Good... Feel Better is dedicated to teaching female cancer patients techniques to restore their appearance and self-image during cancer treatments.

The tlc "magalog" complements these two by providing medical information and special products for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer, breast cancer survivors and any woman experiencing treatment-related hair loss.

Anderson said these three have been invaluable tools to help encourage patients by providing both knowledge about the disease and comfort to those affected by it.

"We've really been able to use these to deliver as much information as we can to patients," Anderson said. "We think they have been an effective way of getting people to learn more about breast cancer and they also give fellow cancer patients a means of support as well."

Another component which has been critical for Anderson and others affiliated with the American Cancer Society has been the Tell a Friend program, begun by the ACS in 1992 to provide another form of peer-to-peer outreach.

Over 155,000 women were contacted by Tell a Friend volunteers last year, and statistics reveal that early warning may have saved some lives, as nearly 97 percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer at an early stage survive for more than five years.

Research also shows nearly 70 percent of women surveyed said they are greatly or somewhat influenced by others' opinions when it comes to health concerns such as breast cancer.

Anderson said that statistic is the reason the Tell a Friend program plays such a vital role in the battle against breast cancer.

"That's why Tell a Friend is so critical," Anderson said "Just from my personal experiences, when someone had breast cancer there would always be relatives of the person that would come in and get checked, and that's just great. The more people that get checked means that more cases of breast cancer can potentially be caught in the early stages, which means these people have a greater chance of survival."

Studies also show how effective the program has been over the past nine years.

Breast cancer mortality declined by the largest amount in more than 65 years during the 1990s, as it fell two percent annually during the decade, in large part due to increased

public awareness about the disease.

Anderson said breast cancer is something which has affected nearly every person today in some shape or form, and said she is committed to trying to educate people about the facts surrounding the disease as best she can.

"I'd imagine there are very few people in the world today who don't personally know someone who has had breast cancer," Anderson said. "Years ago, people didn't mention the 'C-word' because they didn't want to talk about it. Today, we want to get as much information out about breast cancer as possible."

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