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The most important thing to understand about breast cancer is that if it is detected early, it can be treated successfully 98% of the time. While this may sound wonderful, it puts the impetus on women to be mindful of the disease.


Everyone knows someone who has been touched by breast cancer. Instead of putting it out of their minds, senior women and their loved ones should be proactive and understand the risks and potential treatments when it comes to breast cancer. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the reason we are showered in pink is to remind women (and yes, men too) the importance of early detection. And being proactive starts with understanding.


What Is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that forms in the cells of the breast. The vast majority of breast cancer cases occur in women, but it can occur in men on rare occasions. In 2017, there will be an estimated 252,710 new cases of breast cancer. Due to awareness, research funding and improved early detection, breast cancer survival rates have increased.


The symptoms of breast cancer include a lump or thickening on either breast, change in size of appearance of the breast, and/or a change in the skin of the breast or nipple. If a senior recognizes one of these symptoms, she should see her doctor immediately.


The exact cause of breast cancer is unknown, though doctors have identified certain hormonal, environmental and lifestyle factors that increase the risks. Doctors also believe that breast cancer is genetic, as a strong family history of the cancer could leave women more at risk.


In seniors, the risks are even greater. About two out of three invasive breast cancer cases occur in women over the age of 55. As people age, their bodies are less able to repair damaged cells, which is the most likely reason for the increased risk. Other major factors include radiation exposure or increased exposure to estrogen-based therapies, such as postmenopausal hormone therapy. Other factors that have shown to increase the risk of breast cancer are having a first child after 30 or not having a child at all. Some secondary factors are stress, obesity, alcohol consumption, smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise.


Preventative Care for Breast Cancer

The best way to detect breast cancer early is by scheduling regular screenings. Women over the age of 50 should make an appointment to get screened at least once a year. Types of screenings include clinical breast exams as well as mammograms, ultrasound and tissue removal. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast whereas an ultrasound uses sound waves to examine the internal breast structure. A doctor may also suggest an MRI. In certain cases, a biopsy is required to analyze the breast tissue for cancer cells. A senior should discuss with his or her doctor in regards to which type of screening would be right for them.


Another important way to detect breast cancer early is by conducting regular self-exams. These self-exams should not be conducted in lieu of physician-conducted screenings. Instead, they should be seen as a supplement to screenings — and it is one of the best ways to find early warning signs that prompt seniors to get checked professionally as soon as possible. Women should become familiar with their breasts. While this will not prevent cancer, it can be a way to more easily spot any potential changes.


Other factors in prevention are linked to living a healthy lifestyle. Quitting smoking, limiting the amount of alcohol consumed and maintaining a healthy weight can help. This is, of course, achieved through both eating right and exercising regularly. Seniors should talk to their doctors about what other lifestyle changes they can make to their everyday routines to improve their overall health.


Treatment Options for Breast Cancer

The treatment for breast cancer varies from patient to patient, especially for seniors. The type of treatment is determined by the stage of the cancer as well as the size, shape and location of the mass. The treatment is also determined by the overall health of the patient. Since seniors are more likely to suffer from other illnesses, other health factors must be considered when it comes to the choice of treatment.


Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer. The surgery can remove part of the breast, the entire breast, or just the affected glands. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy or hormone therapy are also treatment options; they are often administered in addition to surgery. While drugs are also an option, doctors must consider a few factors: what other drugs the senior currently takes, how those drugs will react to the breast cancer treatment, and how the senior’s body will react if the current medication must be eliminated.


Coping and Support for Those With Breast Cancer

Finding out you or a senior loved one has breast cancer is devastating news. If the shock of living with cancer is not enough, the stress and anxiety associated with having to make some difficult choices in regards to care can be overwhelming. This is the time when your senior loved ones need support most.


The first thing seniors and their loved ones should do is to get educated. Ask the doctor what the options and pros and cons are for each choice. Keep a close set of friends and family nearby, but only inform the people that the senior wants to know. Your senior loved one may need to depend on more than one person to get through this time, so be open, honest and positive — however, it’s important to strike a careful balance, as too much unwanted positivity can anger someone who is struggling.


Talk with breast cancer survivors, or have your senior loved one join a breast cancer support group. Finding out how other survivors’ journeys went can be helpful to both your senior loved one and you as the caregiver. If you are the primary caregiver, make sure to devote some time to yourself. Caregiver stress can be incredibly difficult and may even lead to depression. Reach for that support system and do not be afraid to ask for help whenever you may need it.

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