How To Really Be Aware This October

Everywhere we turn we hear about "awareness". That's great, but what does it mean? Now it is Breast Cancer Awareness month - but awareness of what? What do you do with all this awareness? Will you be more aware at the end of this October than you were last October? What did you learn? And what will you do differently?

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer this year it really opened my eyes to what I thought I knew and what I had avoided knowing about cancer. Since my mom died from breast cancer in the 1990s I thought I was pretty aware. But it turns out I didn't really know much. I went on a data seeking binge and found out most of us have a slightly warped view of cancer. To me, this is how you can really be aware:

Remember that it's not a death sentence.

Many people who get breast cancer survive. Many are quickly cured completely - I had a lumpectomy less than three weeks after my August diagnosis. Once I complete a few weeks of radiation to remove any (unlikely) lurking microscopic cancer cells, I will be considered cured. Survival is a more common scenario than the media leads us to believe and early detection is critical - don't put off screenings out of fear.

Understand your screening options.

Talk to your doctor about clinical breast exams, mammograms, MRIs, and ultrasounds. There are other emerging screening techniques but be careful - anecdotes about success aren't enough, we need actual science based studies to show how effective they are. None of these screening methods are 100% accurate but each has its place. Your age, family medical history, health, diet, weight, breast density, and even your personality all play into how often you need each type of screening. Talk to your primary care physician and even a breast care specialist. Understand the chances of false positives and false negatives. No screening is a waste of time - when a screening doesn't find cancer it still sets a baseline. My mammogram this year had a "suspicious" spot that was initially dismissed as innocent. But when they compared it to my previous year's mammogram (the baseline) they decided to do a biopsy which meant my cancer was found much, much earlier than it have been otherwise.

Screen yourself.

Get to know your breasts. We all have lumps and oddities and they may change throughout the month. You need to know how they look and feel on an average month and talk to your doctor about unusual changes.

Talk to a genetic counselor.

There are several gene mutations, including BRCA, that are strongly associated with breast and ovarian cancer. Refer back to the point about surviving - understand whether any statistics you get are about diagnosis or about survival. If you know now that you might have a higher chance of cancer you can focus more on prevention and be able to make more informed, less panicky decisions if you do end up with a cancer diagnosis. And most importantly, remember that most breast cancers have NOTHING to do with family history.

Do educated research.

Your providers know their area of specialty very well. Various website contributors and bloggers may or may not have specific training, so be sure to stick to reputable sites, especially when you first dig into the subject. Never be afraid to ask for more information or a second opinion.

Understand your insurance.

You may have more coverage than you think. The Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare, guarantees coverage for screening mammograms. However diagnostic mammograms and other followup tests are not considered screening or preventative care. If you are denied any coverage for treatment fight back!


Eat fewer processed foods. Maintain a healthy weight - fewer cells in your body mean fewer cells that can “break bad”. Exercise. Drink less. Ask your doctor if Tamoxifen is right for you.

Avoid pink-washing.

How does buying something pink or branded with a ribbon really help someone?

Help others.

Do something for people with breast cancer and their caregivers or those who are BRCA positive. Offer to mow yards, clean house, shop, or babysit. If you own a business, can you offer 1-2 free services each year to cancer patients? Help them start a CaringBridge site. Share your story or answer a question on Offer to walk with them. Find something that you enjoy or that comes easier to you than to most and offer that to someone affected by cancer.

And that's what awareness is really about. Be courageous, take action, and survive!

Would you add anything to this list? Write it in the comments below.

Image courtesy of Miguel Á. Padriñán.