Published on October 1, 2021

Breast Cancer: the world’s most common cancer 

Dan McKay, CEO of Ephraim McDowell, smiles for the camera.

In 2021, breast cancer became the most common cancer in the world, and although we typically take the month of October to focus on awareness for women, it’s important to understand that men are not excluded from breast cancer statistics.  

For women, the risk of breast cancer increases, nearly doubling in fact, if she has a first-degree relative who has been diagnosed in their lifetime. However, almost 85 percent of breast cancer cases happen to occur in women who have no family history at all. For men, breast cancer is a little different. The risk is low, affecting only one in 833 men. Although some risk factors remain the same as for women, such as age and family history, men are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer from being overweight or obese, having diabetes, Klinefelter’s syndrome which occurs when men are born with two X chromosomes, use of hormone drugs or exposure to large amounts of radiation.  

Regardless, in both sexes African-Americans are more likely to develop the disease and die from it than individuals of Asian, Hispanic, or Native-American descent. White individuals, both male and female, are the second most likely to develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Knowing the signs and symptoms can help both a woman and a man keep track of any changes in their body that they need to be aware of, and help them realize when it’s time to see a doctor and receive the care that’s needed before the cancer grows and becomes more resilient to treatment. 

Signs of breast cancer include swelling of all or part of the breast area, skin irritation or dimpling, breast pain, nipple pain or the nipple turning inward, redness, scaliness or thickening of the nipple or breast skin, discharge from the nipple other than breast milk, or a lump in the underarm area. Although these symptoms may also be related to a non-life-threatening diagnosis, like an infection or cyst, it’s important to seek medical care if any of these changes in the breast area occur. A great way to stay on top of your breast health, for both men and women, is to routinely conduct a monthly self breast exam to feel and visually inspect the area for any changes such as the ones listed above. For women over the age of 40, an annual mammogram is also an important exam that can make all the difference between catching breast cancer early enough for it to be treated before it’s grown too invasive.

For individuals with a family history, genetic testing is now available to help catch gene abnormalities and/or changes to confirm or rule out any genetic conditions that may make a woman, or man, high-risk for developing breast cancer. If you or someone you know falls into this category, I encourage you to talk to your primary care provider for more information. For women, this test can help rule out the risk for ovarian cancer as well. 

While most breast changes tend to be benign, breast cancer death rates are higher for women than any other cancer besides lung cancer. This year it’s estimated that 30 percent of all new cancers diagnosed in women will be breast cancer. With new treatment options and earlier detection available, advances are being made to stop the deadly disease, but that still doesn’t mean that awareness this month, and throughout the year, isn’t important. 

Staying healthy starts at home. Do your self-exams. Seek medical attention, genetic testing, and treatment if necessary. Educate your sister, daughter, mothers, and even the men in your life. 

Breast Cancer Awareness Month may only happen once a year in October, but the most common cancer worldwide doesn’t rest for the other eleven months while we’re all waiting to wear pink again. This month, and every month in between, give yourself the care you deserve and pass the knowledge onto others about breast cancer risks for all those you love in your life, both male and female.