Chances are, you know someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. As we enter October, you’ve likely seen pink ribbons adorning everything from yard signs to bumper stickers to football cleats to help raise awareness. We highlight this disease because of its high prevalence and also because it’s one we can catch early with surveillance and lessen the risk of getting if we change some behaviors.
Breast cancer is extremely prevalent, second only to skin cancer for women in America. In fact, one in eight women will have breast cancer in their lifetimes. Men get breast cancer as well, however, they are diagnosed at a much lower rate.
Fortunately, because of its prevalence, breast cancer has been studied extensively and, for most people, it’s a survivable disease.
The rate of breast cancer increases with age, with the highest rate from ages 70 to 74. The rate slowly declines after that. Because we know the breast cancer rates increase with age, yearly mammography beginning at age 40 has long been the standard of care. Several organizations have differing guidelines but in practice, most health care professionals will begin advising mammograms at age 40. You may be advised to begin mammography earlier if your family history is positive for breast cancer. If you have multiple close family members with a history of breast cancer, you may also be advised to have genetic testing for the BRCA gene, which can increase your chances of getting the disease by about 80%. On occasion, if there is a family history and slightly abnormal, though noncancerous findings on your mammogram, you may be advised to have breast MRIs as well as mammograms because they give a more detailed view of the breast tissue.
Fortunately, there are lifestyle modifications that can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. Possibly the most important modifiable risk factor is weight. It is very important to maintain a healthy weight and frequently exercise. How does this relate to breast cancer? Fatty tissue emits estrogen, and increased estrogen is a risk factor for breast cancer.
It is also important to limit alcohol which can increase estrogen, thus increasing the risk for breast cancer. In fact, women who have three or more drinks weekly increase their risk of developing breast cancer by 15%. If you are over the age of 35 and using hormonal birth control methods, speak with your health care provider about whether other options should be considered, as hormone therapy has also been linked to breast cancer. If you are a woman of childbearing age, consider breastfeeding your children, which has been shown to lower risk of breast cancer.
Breast cancer is best treated when caught at its earliest stage. So as you watch the leaves turn, the pumpkins come out and see the pink ribbons flying, remember to check to see if your mammogram is scheduled.
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