Simply being a woman is 'biggest risk factor' for breast cancer

Oct 1, 2019

It’s the time of year when we start to see a lot of pink: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Kicking off the month at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo on Tuesday, medical experts and elected officials made one message clear: early detection is critical to beating the disease.

Medical care providers and elected officials kicked off Breast Cancer Awareness Month at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo Tuesday.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

“I’m here to encourage every woman to get your mammogram once a year, yearly,” said Annette Colden, a breast cancer survivor. “Don’t put it off. Early detection is important. Early detection saved my life.”

Colden now helps other women navigate breast cancer at Roswell Park and through The Witness Project, a community outreach effort that encourages early cancer detection through regular medical screenings.

One out of every eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. That makes breast cancer the most common cancer in American women except for skin cancers.

Ermelinda Bonaccio, MD, is Roswell Park’s chair of diagnostic radiology and former chief of breast imaging.

“Those of you that know me know that if I’m given an opportunity to speak, I’m going to speak about screening mammography recommendations,” Dr. Bonaccio said. “Screening mammography has been shown in multiple studies to lower the risk of dying from breast cancer by nearly 40 percent in some studies, and some of the longer term studies are even higher than that.”

Breast cancer survivor Annette Colden speaks Tuesday, with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul standing by.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

In order to detect breast cancer as early as possible, Roswell Park recommends that all women receive annual mammograms starting at age 40. Doctors may recommend starting earlier for some women with additional risk factors, Dr. Bonaccio said, even though most women who develop breast cancer don’t have an identifiable risk factor.

“I usually tell my patients being a woman is our biggest risk factor.”

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and New York State Assemblyman Sean Ryan also spoke at Tuesday’s press conference to highlight how New York is using state law and funding to encourage early detection, such as by making investments in mobile screening vans and community navigators like Colden.

“We are proud that 82% of New York women are now meeting the recommendations for breast cancer screening,” Hochul said. “That’s the highest we’ve ever had.”

“Under the leadership of Gov. Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Hochul, we figured out that there was hurdles to people getting early detection. We found out that co-pays were an obstacle. We found out that maybe some of the technology we were using wasn’t the most up to date,” Ryan said. “We took some of those hurdles away, and we’re going to keep identifying any hurdles to good public health outcomes.”

Colden said she’s proof that breast cancer “does not have to be a death sentence,” and she urged other women* to take control of their health by getting regular mammograms. “It can save your life.”

*While rare, men can also develop breast cancer. The risk factor for men is about 1 in 1,000, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.