Want to know your breast cancer risk? Talk to your doctor
Regular checkups with your healthcare provider can help determine when cancer screening is right for you
By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Kaiser Permanente
A woman’s chance of surviving breast cancer increases dramatically the earlier the cancer is detected, but because breast cancer can be invisible, women must be proactive about their health screenings.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, with most cases found in women who are at least 50 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 11 percent of breast cancers are found in women under the age of 45.
Dr. Jeannine Benson, Internal Medicine Physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Edwards Medical Offices, said it’s important for women to know that they can still get breast cancer without any risk factors, but there are ways women can work to reduce their risks. These include staying active and eating a healthy diet, talking with your doctor about the risks and benefits of hormonal medications, maintaining healthy alcohol use and maintaining a healthy weight.
“Women should have a discussion with their doctor about their personal risk,” she said. “It is important they know their family history for this discussion.”
An online tool, bcrisktool.cancer.gov, helps assess a woman’s risk of breast cancer over the next five years and up to the age of 90 (lifetime risk). It looks at a woman’s age, age at first period, age at the time of the birth of a first child (or whether a woman has never given birth), family history of breast cancer, number of past breast biopsies, and race/ethnicity.
One of the best ways to know your risk for breast cancer is by seeing your doctor regularly and discussing your lifestyle, family history and other factors. While there are no sure ways to prevent breast cancer, the American Cancer Society reports that some risk factors can be changed or lowered.
“Maintaining a well-balanced diet and regular exercise routine are the two best ways to reduce your risk of breast cancer. You can also moderate alcohol consumption to lower your risk. You hear this advice time and again because it really does work,” said Dr. Benson. “But because a woman’s risk for breast cancer increases with age, there are two risk factors women can’t control: being female and aging.”
BReast CAncer (BRCA) Susceptibility Gene
Women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation are at a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Talk to your doctor about genetic testing if you have a family history of breast, ovarian, fallopian tube or peritoneal cancer.
“A majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer had no identifiable risk factors–this means as much data as the healthcare industry has, there is still so much to learn about this disease,” said Dr. Benson. “There is not one guaranteed way to predict breast cancer. But conversations with your physician about family history, self-breast exams, and detection through regular screening can help catch breast cancer in its earliest stages.”
“Roughly 70 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors, meaning that the disease occurs largely by chance and according to as-yet-unexplained factors,” said Dr. Shannon Garton, Family Medicine Physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Edwards Medical Offices. “Because breast cancer can be invisible and we are not able to truly predict who may get breast cancer, the best measure we have is to do screening regularly to try to catch any cancer which may develop in its earliest stages.”
Mammograms are the most common screening tool for breast cancer. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast, obtained while the patient stands in front of a special machine that flattens each breast between two plates to obtain the X-ray image.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that mammograms are the best tests doctors have to find breast cancer early, sometimes up to three years before it can be felt.
The American Cancer Society recommends all women ages 45 to 54 get mammograms every year, and women ages 55 and older should switch to mammograms every two years or can continue yearly screening. For woman ages 40 to 44, they can choose to start mammograms during this time if they wish to or if their doctor recommends it.
Benson said other guidelines from The United States Preventative Services Task Force recommend that women who are 50-74 who are at average risk get a mammogram every two years, while women between the ages of 40-49 should talk with their doctor about when they should start getting mammograms.
“There are risks and benefits to screening. The benefit is finding cancer earlier, but risks include false positive results which can lead to unnecessary testing; overdiagnosis and overtreatment; and false negative results in which mammograms can miss some cancers as well, which could delay treatment,” Benson said. “Women who have specific risk factors should talk to their doctor about personal screening recommendations.”
Benson also suggests that patients remain familiar with their breasts so women can notice when a chance occurs. She recommends self -breast exams once a month.
“If you notice any changes, you should be evaluated by your doctor,” she said. “It should also be known that self- breast exams and having a breast exam by your doctor has not been found to lower the risk of dying from breast cancer.”