Today marks the first day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month—and with everything from football fields to candy counters suddenly awash in pink, it’s the right time to shine a light on some little-known but totally surprising truths about the disease. Who better to give us an assist than Lindsay Avner, 31, the founder of Bright Pink, a nonprofit advocacy organization that educates young women about breast and ovarian cancer? Not only does Avner encourage women to take charge of their health, she also has personal experience on the breast cancer frontlines. She underwent a preventive double mastectomy at 23 after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, which raises your risk of breast cancer up to 87 percent. Brave, right? Here, she fills us in on six crucial facts all women need to be up on.
1. Breast cancer isn’t limited to your boobs. Because breast tissue extends up to your collarbone and deep inside armpit, the disease can strike here too, says Avner. No wonder breast self-exams involve touching and looking at these body areas, in addition to your actual breast. Need a self-exam refresher? Check out Bright Pink’s infographic, which gives you a step by step. Since they only help you out if you remember to do them every month, text “PINK” to 59227, and Bright Pink will text you monthly reminders.
2. A lump isn’t the only symptom. True, it’s the most common sign (though 80 percent of lumps turn out to be benign). But there are other tip-offs: persistent itching, a bug bite–like bump on the skin, and nipple discharge, says Avner. In fact, any weird or mysterious change in the way your breasts look or feel can turn out to be a symptom. So take note, and if something persists for a few weeks, check in with your doctor.
3. But when it is, it might feel like a frozen pea. A lump that’s solid and immobile, like a frozen pea or marble or another hard item fixed in place, is concerning. That doesn’t mean it’s cancer, of course. But if it doesn’t vanish after a few weeks or grows larger, have your doctor take a look.
4. The risk for younger women is lower than you might think. Two-thirds of women who are diagnosed have already passed their 55th birthday, according to the National Cancer Institute. And age is one of the strongest risk factors for developing the disease. That’s reassuring news and a strong reminder not to panic if you notice a weird sign.
5. Breast cancer is not a death sentence. Diagnose it early, and the cure rate skyrockets. If it’s detected and treated while still in Stage 1, the five-year survival rate hovers at 98 percent, says Avner. Even if it’s Stage III, 72 percent of women can expect to survive at yeast five years, reports the American Cancer Society. That’s the best argument we can think of for not blowing off monthly self-exams and yearly mammograms.
6. Seventy-five percent of breast cancers occur in people with no family history. The gene mutations linked to breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2, get so much media love, many women think that if they have no first-degree relatives (mom, sister, and daughter) with the disease, they don’t have to worry about it. But every year, thousands of women find out that they’re the first ones in their family to be diagnosed. It’s not totally clear what exactly causes breast cancer. But limiting alcohol intake and maintaining a healthy body weight have been shown to be risk reducers, says Avner.