Early Detection is Key to Survival
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness about the importance of finding breast cancer early. It’s likely you know someone whose life has been touched by this disease, since it’s one of the most common kinds of cancer in women. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, about one in eight women born today in the U.S. will get breast cancer at some point.
Who’s at Risk?
The risk factors for breast cancer fall into two categories: those you can change and those you can’t. The latter include:
- Getting older, since most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50
- Genetic mutations, i.e., inheriting genetic changes
- Reproductive history, menstruating before age 12 and starting menopause after 55
- Having dense breasts
- A personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases
- Family history of breast cancer
- Previous treatment using radiation therapy
Women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), which was prescribed between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriages, also have a higher risk of breast cancer — as do women whose mothers took DES while pregnant.
Risk factors you can change include not being physically active, being overweight or obese after menopause, taking hormones and drinking alcohol. Reproductive history also can raise breast cancer risk, if your first pregnancy was after 30, you didn’t breastfeed or you never had a full-term pregnancy.
In addition to regularly conducting breast self-exams, mammograms are invaluable as a screening test for breast cancer. These special X-ray images are used to detect abnormal growths or changes in breast tissue — before it can be felt during a breast exam. Research has shown mammograms can increase breast cancer survival.
When should women start getting mammograms and at what frequency? The answer isn’t the same for everyone — and from every authority. The American Cancer Society recommends women ages 40 to 44 should have the option to start yearly screening mammograms, those between 45 and 54 should have one every year, and those 55 and over should get them every one or two years.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women between 50 and 74 get mammograms every two years; it doesn’t recommend screening after 74 and says beginning screening before 50 should be a decision based on a woman’s personal needs and risks.
The best course of action is to work with your doctor to determine the right frequency for you. And don’t be scared off by talk of how painful mammograms are; the technology has gotten better and better, and a few seconds of being uncomfortable is certainly a fair tradeoff for learning you’re cancer-free or getting an early start on treatment.