You may have seen this month a lot of the color pink displayed to raise awareness about breast cancer, and might be wondering if you should get screened.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, except for skin cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is estimated that one in eight women will be diagnosed. And while it is rare, men can also develop breast cancer.
The good news is that catching it in the early stages, when treatment is most effective, can save lives.
Answers to common questions about who is at risk for breast cancer and available screening options are provided below.
Who is at risk for breast cancer?
Being a woman puts you at risk for breast cancer. Men can also develop breast cancer, but as I mentioned, it is rare. Plus, as you get older, your risk of breast cancer increases. Most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older. Men are typically diagnosed between 60 and 70 years old.
Breast cancer rates are also slightly higher for both women and men with a family history. Having a first-degree relative (mother, sister or daughter) diagnosed with breast cancer almost doubles a woman’s risk. Mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which help keep your body’s cells from growing abnormally, are known inherited risk factors linked to breast cancer. Genetic testing is often suggested for those who might have these mutations.
Other risk factors for women include having dense breast issue, late or no pregnancy and using birth control or hormone therapy with estrogen and progestin after menopause. Studies show that drinking alcohol and carrying extra weight can also increase risk. Many women without any risk factors, however, are commonly diagnosed.
Who should get screened for breast cancer?
Regular breast cancer screening is suggested for all women over the age of 40. If you are at a higher risk of breast cancer, then you may need to be screened earlier. And, even if you feel healthy it is important to get screened. Many women diagnosed with breast cancer have no symptoms. Warning signs can include a lump found in the breast or armpit, pain or swelling and changes in breast size.
Breast cancer screening is only recommended for men with a high risk due to family history, but, if a lump is found, then it is a good idea for men consult their doctor.
What types of screening options are available?
The most commonly performed screening tests are clinical breast exams and mammograms. A clinical breast exam is done by a healthcare provider during a regular medical check-up.
A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast that looks for abnormalities. This includes 3D mammography, available here in Douglas County at CHI Mercy Health, which is quickly becoming the standard of breast imaging across the country. By taking many low-dose x-rays as the machine moves over the breast, a computer can put together the images into a 3-dimensional picture that allows doctors to see the breast tissue more clearly.
For some women at higher risk of breast cancer, breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, also available at Mercy, may be used.
While breast MRI is relatively new, it is a highly specialized test in which a powerful magnet is used to take hundreds of images of the breasts. MRI is so sensitive, however, that sometimes abnormalities may appear present even when there is no cancer, which is why breast MRI is not used for women at average risk.
What can I do to lower my risk?
There is no way to prevent breast cancer, but there are ways that you can limit your risks. Maintain a healthy diet and stay active. Controlling your weight can have a positive impact on your risk, especially after menopause. Limiting alcohol consumption and quitting smoking are also good lifestyle changes shown to decrease your risk of breast cancer.