Breast cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer for women in the U.S., second only to lung cancer. The good news is that breast cancer death rates have been decreasing over the last 30 years, in part due to advances in breast cancer treatment, earlier detection through screening and increased breast cancer awareness.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Take a few moments to review some potentially life-saving information about breast cancer.
Who is At Risk?
Breast cancer is generally thought of as a women’s disease, but men can also develop breast cancer. About 2,350 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in men this year.
Many of the risk factors for breast cancer are outside of one’s control, including (but not limited to):
- Gender. Female hormones estrogen and progesterone can promote the growth of breast cancer cells.
- Age. Risk of breast cancer increases with age. About two of three invasive breast cancers are found in women age 55 and older, while just one of eight are found in women younger than 45.
- Genetics. About five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, the result of a genetic mutation such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 (the most common genetic mutation linked to cancer).
- Family history. A woman’s risk of developing breast cancer can more than double if she has a first-degree relative with cancer (mother, sister or daughter).
- Race and ethnicity. Caucasian women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than African-American women, though African-American women are more likely to die of the disease. Women of Asian, Hispanic and Native American descent have a lower risk of developing breast cancer.
Lifestyle factors can also affect a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Lifestyle factors related to breast cancer include:
- Birth control. Studies show oral contraceptives may slightly increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
- Hormone therapy. Some women who undergo hormone therapy after menopause may have a greater risk of developing breast cancer.
- Breastfeeding. Studies suggest breastfeeding may slightly lower a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
- Drinking alcohol. Consumption of alcohol has been clearly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Being overweight or obese. Women who are overweight or obese after menopause have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
- Physical activity. Exercise—even just brisk walking—can reduce a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
Getting Screened for Breast Cancer
Early detection of breast cancer increases chances of effective treatment. The goal of breast cancer screening is to discover breast cancer before it causes symptoms. There are two key screening tests for breast cancer: a breast self-exam and a mammogram.
Adult women of all ages are encouraged to perform breast self-exams at least once a month. Self-exams help a woman become familiar with how her breasts look and feel so she can alert her doctor if she notices any changes. According to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, 40 percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump.
A mammogram—an X-ray of the breast—is the main test recommended by the American Cancer Society for the early detection of breast cancer. A breast MRI is recommended for women who are at high risk for breast cancer.
Women who do not have a family history of breast cancer or any other factors putting her at a higher risk of developing breast cancer should have an annual mammogram starting at age 40. Women who are high-risk may need mammograms in her 20s or 30s.
If you are over 40 or have a family history of breast cancer, schedule an appointment for a mammogram today. Breast cancer may not be preventable, but early detection can save your life.