by Dr. Nina Olsen, M.D.
Every October, women see grocery store shelves filled with pink products and favorite sports teams donning pink uniforms, and remember, “oh right, it’s breast cancer awareness month.” But after we acknowledge the awareness campaign, we often move on with our grocery shopping, game watching, or whatever life has in store for us that day. We forget to stop and think about what it is we should be aware of. Knowing the risk factors and staying on top of your breast health can help you prevent or detect early the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the U.S. (aside from skin cancer) and the second leading cause of death from cancer in American women.
What are the risk factors?
A woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is 12% (one in eight women). Risk factors include not having children, having children later in life, early start of the period, late menopause, history of radiation treatment to the chest, alcohol consumption, smoking, and being overweight. Women who have multiple children and who breastfed actually have a lower risk of breast cancer.
Family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer is associated with an increased risk. If you have a family member who was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age (before 50), you should have a conversation with your doctor about genetic causes, and you may want to talk to a genetic counselor about undergoing genetic testing. However, 85% of breast cancer diagnoses are in women with no known family history of breast cancer.
What can you do about it?
The biggest thing you can do is know your body. How does it normally look and feel? Are there any changes? If so, report those changes to your OB/GYN. This know-your-normal mentality has replaced the need for monthly breast self-exams, which are no longer recommended for average-risk women.
Clinical breast exams may be offered every one to three years for asymptomatic average-risk women 25-39 years of age after a discussion of the risks and benefits of this screening with their healthcare provider. The American College of Obstetricians recommends starting screening mammograms for average-risk women at age 40 to be done every year or every other year until at least age 75. After age 75, the decision to continue screening should be based on the discussion between the patient and her doctor.
Sometimes you can do everything “right” and still be diagnosed with breast cancer. The good news is the current five-year survival rate is 90%. Being aware is the first step. Knowing your body, eating a healthy diet, and having an open line of communication with your physician are the best ways to practice good breast health and early detection.
SOURCES: Practice Bulletin Number 179: Breast Cancer Risk Assessment and Screening in Average-Risk Women; Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation, vbcf.org