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The Importance of Early Breast Cancer Screening

By Jackie Lam | Nov 2, 2020

It's no secret that an early breast cancer screening can save a life — 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. In fact, aside from skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among American women.

But there's an upside: As of January 2020, 3.5 million women have survived the condition thanks to screening and treatment.

The Importance of Breast Cancer Screenings

The American Cancer Society recommends starting mammograms as early as age 40 to detect early signs of breast cancer. By age 45, the screenings should be an annual procedure. There are many reasons why a member might put off a screening — professional and personal commitments, lack of coverage, fear of a diagnosis, lack of health literacy and an overburdened medical system can all come into play. However, not getting screened could let a potentially serious case of breast cancer slip by unnoticed until much later.

4 Groups Who Should Receive Early Breast Cancer Screenings

While the top two risks factors for breast cancer are being a woman and getting older, 5% of cases go undiagnosed in women under 40. This means there are times when it's beneficial for younger members to get screened as well, especially for the following groups:

1. Women Who Inherit Genetic Mutations

Approximately 5% to 10% of breast cancer is connected to inherited gene mutations. The most common gene mutations happen in the BRCA1 and BRCA1 genes. Breast cancer caused by these genetic changes develops more frequently in younger women.

2. Women of Certain Ethnicities

According to the National Cancer Institute, women of Norwegian, Dutch and Icelandic descent, as well as those who are ethnically Ashkenazi Jewish, have a higher prevalence of harmful mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

3. Women With a Family History of Breast Cancer

If a woman has a close relative who has developed breast cancer, they should consider an early screening. The risk increases if the member's affected relative is their mother, sister or daughter.

The risk is also heightened if many family members were affected, especially if they were young when they developed it.

4. Women Who Have Undergone Radiation Treatments

A member with a history of radiation treatment to the chest area may have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. If the radiation in question was to treat a childhood cancer, the likelihood of developing breast cancer is over 20 times higher than normal. Unfortunately, in cases like these, this second cancer might have occurred because the member developed cancer early in life.

Educate Members to Promote Early Detection

While screening for cancer is a good practice for all members, female members in particular should consider getting an early breast cancer screening. Members should coordinate a prevention plan with their doctor — however, it's on union leaders to educate members about whether to get screened early and how the union's benefits make mammograms accessible.

The best way to promote screenings within the union will vary: Consider publishing relevant information, including some the facts listed above and other resources like self-exam instructions. Additionally, the union should regularly remind members of their health benefits through meetings, webinars or newsletters. Leaders who want to go the extra mile might lobby for convenient, fully covered on-site exams through one of many increasingly popular mobile screening services.

Spreading cancer awareness benefits everyone — members, employers and the union alike. At the end of the day, detecting breast cancer at the earliest stages is the best method to keep members healthy, active and working well.

Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer who has written for both Fortune 500 companies and fintech startups. In a former life, she worked in the communications department of an entertainment labor union. Now a full-time freelancer, she enjoys helping fellow freelancers build a successful business.