Breast Cancer Awareness: Risk Factors & Early Detection

OCTOBER 5, 2015

Apart from skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer which occurs in women, and it is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in women. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and while it’s good to raise awareness by wearing pink, Texas Health Care physicians want women to know about their risk factors and the importance of early detection – not just in October, but all the time.

According to the National Cancer Institute, 12.4 percent of women born today in the United States will develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. That’s a scary statistic, but the good news is that the incidence of deaths caused by breast cancer has actually begun to decline since the early 2000’s. With increased understanding of risk factors, more women recognizing the importance of early detection, and continued advances in research and treatment, we will hopefully continue to see a decline in breast cancer-related incidence and deaths.

Understanding Risk Factors

What are the known risk factors that have been connected to breast cancer? Some risk factors are ones that no one can control: age, breast density and family history of breast cancer are three of the major factors that fall into this category. Additionally, women who experienced their first menstrual cycle before age 12 or went through menopause after age 55 have an increased risk of breast cancer.

However, there are a number of known risk factors that a woman can impact, thereby reducing her risk of breast cancer:

  • Alcohol use: The more you drink, the greater your risk. If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation.
  • Weight: Research has indicated that for post-menopausal women, the risk of breast cancer is higher if a woman is overweight or obese when compared to a woman whose weight is in the healthy range.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: Women who are inactive and do not get regular exercise are at increased risk of developing breast cancer.

As with many diseases and health conditions, positive lifestyle choices – regular exercise, a healthy diet, moderate alcohol consumption and of course, not smoking – can have a direct impact on your likelihood of developing breast cancer.

Early Detection is Saving Lives

Over the last generation, there has been remarkable progress made in the fight against breast cancer. According to data from the National Institutes of Health, of women who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1975 – 1977, 75 percent lived longer than five years. Put another way, one in four died within five years.

Fast forward to the last decade – 90 percent of women diagnosed between 1998 and 2006 were expected to live longer than five years past their diagnosis. Some of the reason for this significant increase in the survival rate is more effective treatment options and a greater understanding of the disease. But one of the most important factors is simply early detection.

“Early detection of breast cancer saves lives – no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Gary Alexander, M.D., a Texas Health Care surgeon whose practice includes breast cancer patients. “One of the most important things a women can do for her health in her entire life is to conduct breast self-exams and have regular mammograms at the appropriate age.”

What is a mammogram, and when is the right time for one?

A mammogram is an x-ray image of the breast, which is used to check for breast abnormalities, including cancer, in women who have no signs or symptoms. Studies show that screening mammography can help reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer among women ages 40 to 74, especially for those over age 50.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that women in their 40s have a mammogram every two years and that women age 50 and older be screened annually. These are general guidelines, and your physician will make specific recommendations for screenings based upon your medical history and any known risk factors. If a mammogram is inconclusive, your physician may recommend a diagnostic mammogram or other diagnostic exam for a better assessment.

What about self-breast exams?

One way to detect possible breast cancer in its early stages is through a breast self-exam. Breast self-exams allow you to look for changes or problems in breast tissue in the comfort of your own home. Women should begin doing this in their twenties, and should continue to do so regularly, even after undergoing a mammogram. A BSE is also a good way to detect any changes in between mammograms.

“Talking to a healthcare provider about self-breast examination is the best route to take, so that you have a sense of what to look for. Most women’s breasts have lumps – that’s completely normal,” says David Rutledge, M.D., who is also a Texas Health Care surgeon who works with breast cancer patients. “The purpose of a self-exam is to detect any changes in your breasts. If something does feel different or unusual, you should report it to your doctor as soon as possible. ”

The following information on the best way to conduct a breast self-exam is provided by the National Institutes of Health:

“The best time to do a self-breast exam is about 3 – 5 days after your period starts. Your breasts are not as tender or lumpy at this time in your monthly cycle.

If you have gone through menopause, do your exam on the same day every month.

Begin by lying on your back. It is easier to examine all breast tissue if you are lying down.

  • Place your right hand behind your head. With the middle fingers of your left hand, gently yet firmly press down using small motions to examine the entire right breast.
  • Next, sit or stand. Feel your armpit, because breast tissue goes into that area.
  • Gently squeeze the nipple, checking for discharge. Repeat the process on the left breast.
  • Next, stand in front of a mirror with your arms by your side.
  • Look at your breasts directly in the mirror. Look for changes in the skin texture, such as dimpling, puckering, indentations or skin that looks like an orange peel.
  • Also note the shape and outline of each breast.
  • Check to see if the nipple turns inward.
  • Repeat the previous three steps with your arms raised above your head.”

Remember, it’s best to always consult with your physician before beginning a self-exam routine and make sure that the approach described above is the right one for you.

A great Tarrant County resource is the Baylor All Saints Medical Center Andrews Women’s Hospital, which provides comprehensive health care services for women, including breast screenings and imaging. Texas Health Care physicians helped found Andrews and today, 25 Texas Health Care member physicians practice there.

As you put on the pink this October to raise awareness of breast cancer, do yourself a favor by looking at your own risk factors and talk to your doctor about scheduling a screening if you are due for one.

This article contains information sourced from:

National Cancer Institute

National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus

Mayo Clinic

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Read our 2014 article on breast cancer, which includes additional information, including symptoms.

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