This October marks the 38th anniversary of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM), when we bring attention to the most common type of cancer affecting millions of women globally.
While advocacy is imperative to the cause, addressing the seriousness of this disease requires long-term proactive measures from health organizations, governments, community leaders, and employers that go beyond BCAM.
In this Shortlister article, we’ll explore the role of employers in raising awareness and how they can contribute to early detection through breast cancer screening recommendations as a preventative measure.
The Importance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Since then, it has expanded into a movement about educating the public on breast cancer symptoms, prevention, and treatment. This includes awareness of the signs, the importance of early detection, breast cancer screening recommendations, and more.
Another critical aspect of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is to help organizations raise funds for research and cure.
Over the years, many foundations, non-profits, breast cancer associations, and companies have joined the cause. Under the universal symbol of a pink ribbon, these campaigns aim to show solidarity and support for cancer survivors.
BCAM is an opportunity for employers to bring awareness to the disease in the workplace and show their commitment to employees’ well-being by encouraging breast cancer screenings.
Why Should Employers Give Breast Cancer Screening Recommendations?
Breast cancer screening is a medical process of checking for cancer in asymptomatic patients or before any signs or symptoms of the disease show. There are multiple types of screening, but their goal is the same – early detection to improve survival rates.
This alone is reason enough for employers to support BCAM and align it with their commitment to employee health.
Unlike an early diagnosis, which focuses on detecting cancer in symptomatic patients, screening is a more complex health strategy. According to the World Health Organization, it includes anything from inviting the target population to better access to treatment after a diagnosis.
In the workplace, this entails breast cancer screening recommendations as a preventative health strategy, easy access to such services, and providing additional support and resources before and after a diagnosis.
Promoting Health Screenings during BCAM
While every effort to raise awareness matters, Breast Cancer Awareness Month should represent more than giving out pink ribbons or a pink dress code at work.
Instead, employers can use this occasion to advocate for regular health screenings actively, provide access to healthcare services, including breast cancer screening, and engage their employees in awareness campaigns.
These activites should be part of any comprehensive wellness initiative in the workplace.
Beyond the benefit of reduced healthcare costs that reach billions of dollars and a healthier work environment, it’s a moral obligation that can significantly change the outcome of the illness and save lives.
Access to Screening Services
Moreover, under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), coverage of breast cancer screening and prevention services is usually free with private group and individual insurance, Medicaid, and Medicare. Recommended by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the guidelines include:
- Mammograms at least once every two years for women ages 40 to 74
- Counselling and testing for women with a personal or family history of breast cancer
- Preventative medication for those with a higher risk of breast cancer
Some U.S. states have additional laws on this matter. Thus, employers need to check their local regulations and consult with their benefits providers on compliance with health laws.
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Breast cancer is a complex and life-altering disease.
As such, it requires utmost attention before and after a diagnosis. So, in addition to giving breast cancer screening recommendations and easy access to services, employers should further support their employees.
For example, considering the emotional toll of a cancer diagnosis and the aftermath of getting one, adding mental health support to the list of resources is paramount. This includes confidential counseling services, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), educational resources, and more.
Ultimately, the more companies do for their workforce, the easier their journey toward recovery will be.
When to Start Breast Cancer Screening?
According to the USPSTF, women over 40 at average risk of this disease should consult their doctor or healthcare provider on when to start breast cancer screening and how often to do it. This decision should be an individual one.
For women between ages 50 and 74, the recommendation is to perform a mammogram every two years.
The American Cancer Society, on the other hand, recommends the following:
- Women who are at an average risk of breast cancer should have the option to start screening between 40 and 44 years old.
- Yearly mammograms for those between 45 and 54 years old.
- Women 55 and older could switch to screening every two years if they are in good health or continue yearly screening.
It’s important to note that these breast cancer screening recommendations are for asymptomatic patients, meaning they are a preventative measure for those who are or appear healthy. In this case, a person who is at an average risk is one who:
- Doesn’t have a personal or strong family history of breast cancer.
- Doesn’t carry a genetic mutation that could increase the chances of developing the disease.
- Hasn’t gone through chest radiation exposure before 30.
The American Cancer Society recommends yearly screening for high-risk women starting at age 30.
Types of Breast Cancer Screenings
The two main types of breast cancer screenings are a mammogram and a Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
A mammogram detects changes in the breast tissues using low-dose X-rays, often long before any symptoms show. This makes it the best choice for early detection of breast cancer.
Moreover, technological improvements in recent years introduced a more advanced type of 3D mammogram or digital breast tomosynthesis. Although still not as widespread as 2D mammograms, it shows promising results, including detecting abnormalities in women with denser breast tissue.
However, it’s more expensive and may not be entirely covered by insurance.
Breast MRIs are used for high-risk patients along with yearly mammograms. They use magnets and radio waves to take images of the breast tissue to detect some cancers that a mammogram screening would miss.
However, they can also give false positive test results, leading to unnecessary biopsies, which is why they are not recommended for women at an average risk of breast cancer.
Despite being the most sensitive screening procedure, with sensitivity ranging between 77% and 96%, an MRI can also give false negative test results, emphasizing the need for a combined approach in high-risk patients.
Clinical & Self-Exams
Other methods include self-examination, or searching for abnormalities and lumps in the breast, and regular clinical exams. However, while these are encouraged by medical professionals, the American Cancer Society reports little evidence that they contribute to early detection if the patients have regular mammograms.
Regardless, women should know how to recognize any changes to their bodies to recognize the symptoms of breast cancer and immediately report them to a health professional.
Key Statistics and Facts
Accounting for 12.5% of all new cases globally, breast cancer is the most common type after prostate, lung, colorectal cancers, and melanoma.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s also a costly disease, reaching $29.8 billion in total annual medical costs in 2020. Moreover, breast cancer has the highest treatment expenses of any cancer.
Other facts and statistics further showcase the seriousness of this matter:
- Currently, there are more than four million cancer survivors in the U.S. (women being treated or who have finished treatment).
- One in eight women will develop an invasive breast cancer in their lifetime.
- The odds are one in 833 for men.
- Although 85% of cases occur in patients without a family history of cancer, a woman’s risk of this disease doubles when she does.
- Tumor suppressor genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 cause 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases.
Regarding race and ethnicity, findings show that white women are more likely to develop this condition than other races and ethnicities. However, breast cancer mortality rates are higher among black women by 40%, and so is a more aggressive and advanced stage of breast cancer at a younger age.
On a more positive note, in the past few decades, we’ve significantly improved the detection and treatment of this condition. This led to a 43% decrease in mortality rates between 1989 and 2020. The CDC also reports that following breast cancer screening recommendations can:
- Reduce death rates by 26%
- Decrease late-stage diagnosis by 29%
- Reduce healthcare spending
Seeing how severe and costly this disease is, we must address the disparities that persist, recognizing that there are many barriers to breast cancer screening that we have yet to tackle.
Barriers to Breast Cancer Screening
A study on “Barriers to Breast Cancer – Screening Adherence in Vulnerable Populations” reveals that despite mammograms being an effective way to decrease mortality, not everyone gets screened regularly. Using data from publications from 2016 to 2021, the report identifies the following barriers:
- Race and ethnicity – 47%
- Socioeconomic status – 35.3%
- Low education – 29.4%
- Not having a family history of cancer – 29.4%
- Health information gap & medical mistrust – 23.5%
- Lack of private health insurance – 17.6%
- Not doing annual health checks – 17.6%
Another research shows that these barriers worsened for racial and ethnic minorities and low-income women after the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Both studies acknowledge the importance of raising awareness, bettering education, providing better access to healthcare, and making it more inclusive of different cultures and backgrounds to improve screening rates.
Beyond this, there are other non-economic structural barriers to breast cancer screening, such as administrative procedures, transportation, inconvenient clinic hours, etc.
Employers can remove some obstacles by offering flexible work, paid time off, and good health insurance. More importantly, they can significantly contribute to cultural sensitivity by creating an inclusive company culture and ensuring their health initiatives consider diverse employee backgrounds.
Early Detection Saves Lives
Reducing structural barriers increases breast cancer screening by 18%. Consequently, this leads to higher chances of early detection when cancer is most treatable.
Early detection often means a less aggressive treatment, lower healthcare costs, and, most importantly, a better prognosis.
Thus, in anticipation of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, employers should turn to solutions that promote awareness and inspire action.
Breast cancer screening recommendations should be one aspect of a comprehensive health strategy that contributes to early detection, better outcomes, and improved quality of life for employees facing breast cancer.
- American Cancer Society
- Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2023
- Promoting Cancer Early Diagnosis, WHO
- Prevent Cancer, Prevent $158 Billion in Healthcare Costs
- Health Resources and Services Administration
- Breast Cancer: Screening – USPSTF
- American Cancer Society Recommendations for the Early Detection of Breast Cancer
- Mammogram Basics
- Breast MRI: False-Negative Results and Missed Opportunities
- Health and Economic Benefits of Breast Cancer Interventions
- Breast Cancer Facts and Statistics
- Breast Cancer Risk Factors: Race/Ethnicity
- ACS Report: Decrease in Breast Cancer Mortality Rate Continues; Wide Gap for Black Women Remains Stagnant
- Barriers to Breast Cancer-Screening Adherence in Vulnerable Populations
- Barriers To Breast Cancer Screening Are Worsened Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic: A Review
- Reducing Structural Barriers, CDC