October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a campaign backed by the World Health Organization1 as well as numerous brands, and is marked in countries throughout the world1. The aim is to increase attention and awareness of breast cancer and through this improve early diagnosis, treatment and palliative care.
Awareness campaigns are particularly relevant in countries with limited health infrastructure — with mammography screening being costly, detection of breast cancer is sometimes reliant on individual awareness of the early signs and symptoms
Worldwide, there are an estimated 1.67 million new cases on breast cancer per year2. This makes it the second most common cancer in the world and the most frequent among women2,3. In several countries, mortality has decreased since the mid-1990s but in some parts of the world the number of deaths has remained constant or is even increasing2. In developing regions, breast cancer remains the most frequent cause of cancer death in women with over 500,000 deaths recorded in 2012.
In healthcare settings that support early detection and that have basic treatment available, localized breast cancer has a five-year survival rate of over 80%4. In contrast, in settings with limited resources the five-year survival rate drops to 10–40%4. Differences in survival rates mirror the awareness of breast cancer — in low- and middle-income countries most women are frequently diagnosed in the late stages of the disease1, something that might be reduced with increased access to health services and with greater awareness from both the public and healthcare providers of the benefit of early detection1. For information on the use of mammography in a variety of settings, a WHO position paper is available here. In November, the WHO will publish advice on how countries can improve diagnosis of breast and also other cancers.
Disease awareness campaigns play an established and very real role in realising the potential of modern medicine. The inequality in breast cancer mortality illustrates the discrepancies in out-reach that awareness campaigns may have and the ongoing importance of health literacy and education for awareness. Annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a reminder that greater health literacy and education are key to combating preventable causes of death.
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