October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This isn’t something we particularly like to talk about, but it’s important for us to educate ourselves. Knowing our risk factors and managing any we can control may help us in our personal fight against breast cancer.
Other than skin cancers, breast cancer is the most common cancer that affects women in the US. On average, 1 in 8 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in their lives. (1)
That can be a scary statistic, but there are things we can do to help reduce our risk and, if we do have breast cancer, improve our chances of survival. That’s part of what makes Breast Cancer Awareness so important. Of course, the other part is that it helps raise money for research, which gives us more (and better) treatment options.
First, let’s look at risk factors. Before we talk about these risk factors, though, let me remind you of one thing: Just because you have risk factors, that doesn’t mean that you will develop breast cancer.
Our risk factors can be divided into two groups: those we can control, and those we can’t.
Risk Factors We Can’t Change:
There are some risk factors that we just can’t change, such as:
- Being born female. Women are much more likely than men to develop breast cancer. Men, that doesn’t mean that you can’t get it – it just means your risk is much lower.
- Getting older. Our chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer increase as we get older.
- An inherited risk of breast cancer, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 genes. Click here for an explanation of these.
- Family history of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society,(1) “Having a first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer almost doubles a woman’s risk.”
- Having a personal history of breast cancer. If you’ve had cancer in one breast, you are at higher risk of developing it in your other breast.
- Starting your menstrual period early. If you started your period early, especially before age 12, you have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.
- Going through menopause after age 55. This, as well as the early period risk, is thought to have something to do with longer exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
- Having radiation treatments to your chest as a teenager or young adult.
This isn’t an all-inclusive list, but as you can see, we have a lot of risks that we can’t do anything about. For a complete list of risks, visit the American Cancer Society. Again, this doesn’t mean we will develop cancer.
Risk Factors We Can Control:
Now for the good news: there are some risk factors we can control. Managing those risks can help us not only possibly reduce our risk for breast cancer, it can also improve our overall wellness.
Here are some of the risk factors we can control:
- Drinking alcohol. According to the American Cancer Society, “Drinking alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Women who have 1 alcoholic drink a day have a small (about 7% to 10%) increase in risk compared with non-drinkers, while women who have 2 to 3 drinks a day have about a 20% higher risk than non-drinkers.”
- Being overweight or obese after menopause. That’s because after menopause, most of the estrogen in women’s bodies comes from fat cells. The more fat you have, the more estrogen you may be exposed to. In addition, women who have higher body fat also tend to have higher insulin levels, which has been linked to breast cancer.
- Not being physically active. There’s growing evidence that physical activity reduces breast cancer risk, though it’s not exactly clear why just yet.
- Hormone therapy after menopause. Combined Hormone Therapy after menopause increases breast cancer risk. Most often the increased risk is seen after four years of use.
Again, this list is not all-inclusive. For a complete list, visit the American Cancer Society.
Now that we know the risk factors, let’s look at some of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.
Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer:
According to the Mayo Clinic (3), the signs and symptoms of breast cancer may include:
- A breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue
- Change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast
- Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling
- A newly inverted nipple
- Peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin
- Redness or pitting of the skin over your breast, like the skin of an orange
If you experience any of these signs or symptoms, it’s important that you contact your doctor right away. They might turn out to be nothing serious, but better safe than sorry. Early detection is key.
Let me repeat that — with breast cancer, early detection is key!
Finding breast cancer early, before it has had the chance to spread, and “getting state-of-the-art cancer treatment are the most important strategies to prevent deaths from breast cancer.” (ACS) It’s much easier to successfully treat breast cancer when it’s found early, and the easiest way to find it early is with regular screening tests.
These are the screening recommendations from the American Cancer Society for women who are at average risk for breast cancer:
Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live at least 10 more years.
These are their recommendations for screening for women who are at high risk:
Women who are at high risk for breast cancer based on certain factors should get a breast MRI and a mammogram every year, typically starting at age 30. This includes women who:
- Have a lifetime risk of breast cancer of about 20% to 25% or greater, according to risk assessment tools that are based mainly on family history (see below)
- Have a known BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation (based on having had genetic testing)
- Have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) with BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, and have not had genetic testing themselves
- Had radiation therapy to the chest when they were between the ages of 10 and 30 years
- Have Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Cowden syndrome, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome, or have first-degree relatives with one of these syndromes (5)
Screening tests can identify cancers before you start to have symptoms (such as a lump or any of the other symptoms listed above) and give you the best chance of successful and less-invasive treatment.
Yes, mammograms are uncomfortable – it’s definitely not something I look forward to every year – but they do save lives.
If you’re too young for screening mammograms — or if you’re a man — your best chance of detecting breast cancer early is to know your breasts. Although the ACS no longer recommends the official monthly self-exam, knowing what is “normal” for your breasts can help you realize when things don’t look or feel right. If you notice any changes or have any of the signs and symptoms listed above, please contact your doctor and get it checked out.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a subject that is very personal to me. My beautiful mother is a breast cancer survivor. Because she’s so faithful in having her preventive care checks, including a mammogram, they caught and treated it early. If she hadn’t been so proactive with her healthcare, things could have gone very differently.
This needs to be said, though: Even if you are faithful in your preventive care and get your screenings as recommended for your risk level, that is not a guarantee that it will be caught at an early stage. There are people who do everything “right” and are still diagnosed with later-stage, aggressive cancers.
Screening is not perfect, but it is a great weapon in our arsenal.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month isn’t just about having a month filled with the color pink; it’s about saving lives.
Improving our general wellness, managing the risk factors we can control, and detecting breast cancer early are all things that can help us in our fight.
Since this is such a personal subject, I won’t ask my usual questions, but please feel free to share any thoughts you’d like to share!
Sharing is caring! If this helped you in any way, please share it with your friends.
(2) PDQ® Screening and Prevention Editorial Board. PDQ Breast Cancer Prevention. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/patient/breast-prevention-pdq
(4) Five Ways to Reduce Your Breast Cancer Risk https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/five-ways-to-reduce-your-breast-cancer-risk.html