The nurse’s guide to National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

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Group of women in pink breast cancer awareness shirts holding hands

As a disease that will affect one in eight women during the course of her lifetime, breast cancer is a high health care priority in the U.S. year-round. October is a particularly opportune time for nurses across the country to educate their patients about the disease, as it is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM).

To best help their patients, it is important for nursing professionals to understand the purpose of NBCAM and to educate themselves about the measures that can be taken to identify the disease as early as possible.

The history of Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Every year, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, American Cancer Society and other organizations use the month of October to spread awareness about breast cancer. NBCAM was founded in 1985 and has been making significant progress in combating the disease in the U.S. and abroad ever since.

For many, the month of October is closely associated with the small pink ribbon that can be found on everything from water bottles to airplanes. According to The New York Times, the ribbon was first used in association with breast cancer 25 years ago in California by a 68-year-old woman named Charlotte Haley. To honor her sister, daughter and granddaughter, who all had breast cancer, Haley made peach-colored ribbons to raise awareness for the limited research funding that existed in relation to the disease.

The idea caught on with groups such as the Susan G. Komen foundation, though the organization decided to use pink ribbons rather than peach. Komen was started by U.S. Ambassador Brinker, Komen’s sister who with her sister Susan, was a Peoria, Ill., native. Brinker was the commencement speaker for Bradley University’s May 2010 ceremony.

In addition to spreading awareness, NBCAM is particularly effective in encouraging people to raise money to fight the disease. October now is commonly recognized as breast cancer awareness month which is celebrated through fundraising efforts on both local and national levels, such as community runs, car washes, bake sales and more. However, it is important to read the fine print. Just because something is associated with NBCAM does not mean that it is making a difference for the cause, especially when large companies create special products with the pink ribbon or run special sales. According to the education and activism group Breast Cancer Action, most breast cancer promotions benefit the company more than they benefit the women living with the disease. Some corporations cap donations without telling consumers when the target number has been reached, while others use the pink ribbon logo without actually donating any money to the cause that the ribbon represents. If you want to financially contribute to the fight against breast cancer, make sure that your money is going to an organization that is using its funds responsibly.

Breast Cancer Awareness

Breast cancer in the U.S.

The fight against breast cancer has made significant progress over the last several decades. Incidence rates began to decline in 2000 after rising the previous two decades, according to the nonprofit organization This sign is promising for health care professionals and cancer patients alike. However, the disease is still a major concern for women in the U.S., despite the falling rates. The American Cancer Society estimated that 246,660 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in 2016 and approximately 40,450 women will die from the disease within the year. Yet, the organization did report that deaths from breast cancer have been decreasing since 1989.

While treatment options and patient outcomes have improved, there is currently no ultimate cure for the disease. Because breast cancer continually morphs and can present differently in patients, it is unclear if there ever will be a single one-size-fits-all cure, either for breast cancer in general or even a specific strain of the disease. This fact is something that is difficult for women to understand and accept.

“Unfortunately, we see some patients don’t respond to these… new therapies and some patients that do respond initially eventually develop resistance to those therapies and so the tumor returns,” Monica Bertagnolli, chair of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology, told Scientific American.

Another common misconception in the U.S. is that breast cancer is a disease that only affects women. Some people do not realize that men can develop the disease as well, though it is much rarer. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, although less than 1 percent of breast cancer cases are in males, the mortality rate is higher for men.The primary reason for this is that men are less likely to attribute a lump in the breast area to breast cancer, thus causing a delay in seeking treatment.

It is misconceptions like these that make spreading awareness so important during October. Thanks to their specific role in patient care, nurses are well-placed to advance these efforts.

Nurses and breast cancer awareness

While oncology nurses work with cancer patients every day, they are not the only nursing professionals who can play a role in fighting breast cancer. As with most diseases, the earlier breast cancer is identified, the better the outcome.

Education efforts are critical for spreading breast cancer awareness. Nurses should be particularly diligent when working with patients who are at increased risk of developing the disease. The American Cancer Society reported that factors that can influence the risk of breast cancer in a patient include:

  • Family history: Having a first-degree relative (such as a mother, sister or daughter) with breast cancer doubles a person’s likelihood of developing the disease.
  • Personal history: If a woman has developed cancer in one breast, her risk of developing it in the other breast is increased.
  • Race and ethnicity: White women are slightly more likely to develop cancer than African-American women. Asian, Native American and Hispanic women have a lower risk.
  • Dense breast tissue: Women with dense breast tissue are 1.2 to 2 times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with average breast tissue density.
  • Lifestyle choices: Alcohol consumption, obesity and lack of exercise all can increase the risk of breast cancer.

According to the American Nurses Association, it is important for nurses to be up to date on current recommendations for breast cancer screenings, as well as other methods related to the diagnosis and evaluation of the disease. Currently, the American Cancer Society recommends that women who are at an average risk of breast cancer should begin annual mammograms at 45 and then transition to every two years beginning at 55 years old. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in 2016 took a slightly different stance and suggested that mammograms before the age of 50 should be an individual’s decision but recommended biennial screenings after that point.

Though NBCAM is a valuable opportunity in health care, it is also important for nursing professionals to keep in mind that many breast cancer patients hate what they call the “pinkification” of the month of October. While some women find it encouraging, The New York Times reported that others view the movement as a marketing gimmick that supports awareness but not action. Though nurses should certainly use the month as a reminder to educate themselves and their patients, they should simultaneously be sensitive to the feelings of any patients already fighting the disease.

Interested in pursuing a nursing career? Find out more about Bradley’s online MSN-FNP program.