American women have a one in eight chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and while breast cancer can’t be prevented, there are ways women can reduce their risks.
Research shows that women with a mother, sister or daughter who has been diagnosed with breast cancer have an increased risk of developing it themselves, especially if the relative’s diagnosis happened before the age of 50. Other risk factors include certain genes, alcohol use, body weight, physical activity level, reproductive and menstrual histories, and other factors, according to the American Cancer Society.
While mammograms — the main screening test for breast cancer — aren’t recommended to most women until the age of 40, some women should seek earlier testing based on their risk factors.
“Women know their bodies and the changes occurring. If you suspect something is not right, please contact your doctor — be persistent,” said Noreen Hove, Chief Nursing Officer at Summit Medical Center. “Even if you do not have the money to go to a doctor, there are programs out there that will help you get treatment.”
During October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, health care providers remind patients about the importance of early breast cancer detection. While early symptoms of breast cancer can include pain, feeling a small lump during a self-exam, nipple discharge or an orange-like texture on the breast, many women experience no symptoms at all.
Mammograms are X-rays that expose the breast to a small dose of ionizing radiation to produce an image of the breast tissue. They can show breast lumps before they can be felt, and they also can reveal tiny clusters of calcium called microcalcifications, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
Women 40 and older should have mammograms every one or two years, and women who are younger than 40 and have risk factors for breast cancer should talk to their doctor about when to start having mammograms.
Before your first mammogram, Hove said it’s a good idea to talk to the technician if you’re feeling nervous or afraid about the procedure.
“Talk to the technologist about your fear, allow them verbally go through the procedure and explain all of the steps. Really think about whether it is the fear of having the mammogram or the fear of the results,” she said. “This is a relatively invasive procedure that could save your life.”
Hove said many women are afraid to say anything about a lump they feel during a self-exam, especially if a mammogram comes back negative. It’s important to be persistent with your doctors when you suspect something isn’t right, she said.
Lumps or specks can be caused by cancer, but they could also be the result of other conditions such as fatty cells or cysts. That’s why it’s so important to get further testing such as an ultrasound or MRI if lumps or specks are detected. If those tests show that the mass is solid, a radiologist might recommend a biopsy to remove cells from the area to check for cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
There are a lot common misconceptions about a cancer diagnosis, Hove said. Women often think a diagnosis is an automatic death sentence, or that they’ll need a mastectomy (breast removal).
“Breast cancer represents a wide range of disease, so there are many different treatment options,” she said. “With personalized care, women often can be spared mastectomy or chemotherapy if it will not alter their prognosis. Alternatives to the traditional course of radiation are now available.”
For more information about breast cancer, visit the following sites: