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Autumn is a good time for women to 'think pink'

Today's Albany Herald has a distinct look, one that we present once a year.

Late each September, we use a pink-tinted stock as a reminder of a serious health concern that affects women and even a surprising number men -- breast cancer awareness. Online, albanyherald.com also has a pink background color today as we head into October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Efforts such as these have been successful over the years in making women aware of the disease, one where early detection and treatment greatly improves the chances for survival. The two biggest risk factors for breast cancer are gender -- being a woman -- and age -- growing older. According to the American Cancer Society, a 20-year-old woman today has one chance in 1,681 of being diagnosed with a breast tumor within the next 10 years, while that probability goes up to one in 232 for a 30-year-old woman and one in 42 for a 50-year-old woman for the same 10-year period.

This year, the National Cancer Institute estimates that there will be 226,870 new cases in females and 2,190 cases in males diagnosed. Also this year, 39,510 females and 410 males are expected to die from the illness. The institute estimates that 12.38 percent of women born this year will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives.

In 2009, there were more than 2.7 million women in the United States who had been diagnosed before Jan. 1 of that year with breast cancer (a number that includes both those who had cancer and those who had been cured).

Those are sobering numbers, but there are positives. The five-year survival rate for a woman diagnosed while the cancer is still localized is 98.4 percent.

How significant is early detection? That survival rate drops to 83.9 percent if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes and to 23.8 percent of the disease has metastasized.

So, that is why medical officials and those who care are trying to get the word out. The American Cancer Society's guidelines for the early detection of breast cancer vary depending on a woman's age, with methods of detection including mammography and clinical breast examination. For women who have high risk factors, the organization also recommends a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The ACS suggests that women in their 20s get clinical breast exams at least every three years, with the frequency increasing to annually for asymptomatic women in their 40s. The Society recommends that a woman start having an annual mammogram once she turns 40. The Cancer Society in 2007 started recommending an MRI for women who are at elevated risk for breast cancer.

Cancer is a scary word that no one wants to hear from a doctor. But hearing it sooner than later -- and doing something about it -- is the best defense a woman has in facing this disease. That's why we encourage women -- and those who love them -- to think pink.