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Breast cancer doesn't just strike 'other people'

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Breast Cancer Awareness Month, observed each October, shines a spotlight on breast cancer survivors and the women who have died of the disease.

June 26, our family was on a road trip to Montana to see our new granddaughter when we got the call - my husband's younger sister, Mary "Sugar" Mathieu, was dying. Jerry caught a flight home from Denver and was there when Sugar died the next day after a 3½ year battle with breast cancer.

Last year, I wrote a commentary about Sugar during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, perhaps hoping that my words about her bravery in the face of multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy would bolster her survival chances.  She was a strong woman of faith who did everything she could to continue to live for her loved ones. Even though she's passed away, her family and friends carried on her legacy last weekend as "Team Sugar" during the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Biloxi.

I hate breast cancer with every ounce of my being.

Almost 12 years ago, I had a precautionary double mastectomy because I had irregular breast tissue that was expected to morph into breast cancer within five years.  Last month, our niece April, who turned 40 this year, was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She had surgery and is preparing for radiation treatment. Last year, my mother died of breast cancer, and my stepsister, aunt and cousin died from the disease. My youngest sister was diagnosed with abnormal breast tissue and sees an oncologist on a regular basis. And last week, one of my daughters had an irregular mammogram and is scheduled for an ultrasound this week.

Many people I know have died of breast cancer, but thankfully, many of my friends are among the 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.

The ACS predicts that in 2014 alone, more than 232,570 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and about 40,000 women will die from the disease. Except for skin cancers, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among American women and the second leading cause of cancer death in women, exceeded only by lung cancer. About one in eight women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer in their lifetimes.

It's worth noting that although breast cancer in men is rare, an estimated 2,360 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and approximately 4,300 will die each year, according to the ACS. My former boss was a male victim of the disease in 1992.

Symptoms of possible breast cancer include a new lump in the breast or underarm, thickening or swelling of part of the breast, irritation or dimpling of breast skin, redness or flaky skin in the nipple area, pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area, nipple discharge other than breast milk, any change in the size or the shape of the breast or pain in any area of the breast.

Mammograms don't prevent breast cancer, but they can save lives by finding breast cancer as early as possible, sometimes up to three years before it can be felt. According to breastcancer.org, mammograms have been shown to lower the risk of dying from breast cancer by 35 percent in women over the age of 50. In women between ages 40 and 50, the risk reduction appears to be somewhat less.

The ACS, American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Radiology, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommend that women begin having screening mammograms at age 40. For women ages 50 to 74 years old, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise women ages 50-74 to have a screening mammogram every two years. If you are 40-49 years old, ask your doctor about when and how often you should have a screening mammogram.

Breast cancer doesn't discriminate - people of all ages, races, ethnicities and walks of life are battling the disease. According to the ACS, there are risk factors to consider -- some can be changed, others can't. Having a risk factor, or even several, doesn't mean that you'll get the disease.

Being a woman and growing older are two of the risks that can't be changed. Others include genetic risk factors noted in 5-10 percent of cases, family history, dense breast tissue, non-invasive cancer-like cells in the milk ducts, certain benign breast conditions and personal history of cancer in the other breast.

Caucasian women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer, but African-American women are more likely to die from the disease. Asian, Hispanic and Native American women have a lower risk of developing and dying from breast cancer.

Women who began menstruating before age 12 or go through menopause after age 55 have a slightly increased risk, as do women who had radiation therapy to the chest as children or young adults or pregnant women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol from the 1940s through the 1960s to reduce chances of miscarriage.

Breast cancer risks related to lifestyle include not bearing children or having a first child after age 30, some types of birth control, hormone therapy after menopause, not breastfeeding, alcohol consumption, obesity and lack of physical activity, according to the ACS.

The ACS noted that researchers continue to investigate other possible contributing factors such as diet and vitamin intake, environmental chemicals and smoking.

Breast cancer doesn't just strike "other people" - the next victim could be you, your mom, your wife, your daughter, your sister or your friend. Please support the people fighting the battle and the organizations that are searching for a cure.