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October: that special time of year when we all start thinking about what it is we want to be for Halloween.  Pumpkin spice everything is on the shelves.  Midterms are approaching, and stress levels are going through the roof.  Final plans for Fall Break are being made, and the haggling with Residence Life over break housing has already begun.

I have a friend who occasionally sends out quirky emails that list obscure events coming up on the calendar, like National Cupcake Day or Name Your Car Day. But if you match up National Awareness events on a calendar with their respective color, it begins to resemble something like a Jackson Pollock painting. Nearly every color of the rainbow has been adopted by a cause.  Autism Awareness,  April, is now instantly recognized by a blue puzzle piece.  Yellow evokes thoughts of prostate cancer, September,  thanks to Lance Armstrong.  But what of October?  Breast cancer awareness, pink, and AIDS awareness,  red,  come to the front of the line for 31 days.

Breast Cancer is one of the most well-known of all the October causes.  Pink ribbons and flyers for 5 and 10k’s are all over the place.  The NFL even joins in the “fight against breast cancer,” and we all have the pleasure of seeing 6-foot-3-inch, 280-pound men pushing each other around in pink shoes.  Despite the comical image this scene may evoke, breast cancer is a very real and serious issue.  It is a hardship my family and I had to face four years ago when my grandmother was diagnosed. Luckily, she won the fight, but there are many who don’t.

The American Cancer Society estimates that this year, 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed.  Additionally, 64, 640 women will suffer carcinoma in situ, a non-invasive early stage of breast cancer.  Sadly 39,620 women will die from the disease.  These numbers have decreased significantly from 2000, when they hit the apex of a 20-year climb.

Researchers credit three different factors with the progressively better prognosis for breast cancer patients. The first is the decline in the use of hormone replacement therapies in post-menopausal women.

Secondly, over the past 20 years a lot of new research has been published which has helped to advance, develop and refine cancer drugs and therapies.  Radiation and chemotherapy are still the standards in cancer treatment, but with this new research, the quality of life for the patient has been greatly improved.  Despite these advancements in treatment and research we have not achieved the ultimate goal of creating cures and eliminating cancer as a health threat.

The third and final factor that has improved the outcome for breast cancer patients is advances made in early screening and genetic testing to predict a person’s chances of developing breast cancer.

To hitch my article on the coat tails of last week’s piece about preventive care, the best treatment for breast cancer is to catch it early.  Self-exams, mammograms and genetic tests for pre-dispositions will remain the most effective weapons physicians and women have in their arsenal against this devastating illness.

And thankfully, this cause has received a new celebrity champion in Angelina Jolie, who has been extremely vocal about her experience with the condition.

Another ailment that is best treated by early detection, and championed in October is AIDS.  This systemic infection is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and has been making news since the CDC first reported it in 1981. Then known as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, HIV/AIDS has become an issue of global importance.  In the early years of the disease’s known history, a diagnosis was essentially a death sentence.

In recent years, however, increasingly efficient cocktails of anti-retroviral medications — the treatments for viruses like HIV — have led to more hope in the diagnosis.  According to AIDS.gov, in 2008, 1.2 million people were known to be infected with the virus, and nearly 620,000 deaths had been linked to its effects.  The current projection is that 1.7 million people are infected, with one in five of those people unaware of their status.

Public awareness for HIV/AIDS initially rose out of the horror and looming threat of a pandemic.

Since then, it has become a widely discussed issue, gaining publicity from poignant theatrical productions, like Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America” and the universally recognized musical “Rent.”  Research towards a cure for HIV/AIDS has become a global priority alongside a cure for cancer, and new research shows progress toward developing a potential vaccine.

October is an exciting time of year.  Fall has officially begun, with the return of sweaters, scarves, yoga pants and the joys of football season. While you are enjoying all the wonderful things that October has to offer, take a moment to consider how fortunate you are to have your health.  When you’ve got the chance, check out the website for one of the organizations mentioned above and maybe look into on-campus organizations like Students Against Breast Cancer.

Help to raise public awareness about the benefits of preventive screenings, take care of your health — especially with midterm season upon us — and don’t forget about jumping in giant leaf piles on Mendel Field.

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