Six Surprising Facts about Breast Cancer Risk
Breast cancer is more common than you would think. Most people get worried about breast cancer when a member of their family is diagnosed. They have heard that breast cancer is largely genetic. While risk goes up for those with a family history, 70 percent of women diagnosed have no family history of the disease. In fact, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. That's why the American College of Radiology recommends annual mammograms starting at age 40. Annual mammograms allow doctors to compare pictures from year to year and catch potentially concerning tumors earlier.
Screening makes a big difference. An increase in regular screening mammograms have helped mammogram technologists and radiologists to catch cancers earlier, which makes breast cancer treatment much faster and more manageable for many people. In fact, many breast cancer patients choose not to share their diagnosis with even their close contacts. So you could already know someone who is going through or has gone through breast cancer treatment, without knowing it.
Breast cancer affects both men and women of all ages. While far less common, men can have breast cancer, too. Many of us think breast cancer is only for older people but it affects people of all ages.
The risk of breast cancer goes up for women with dense breast tissue. Do you know whether your breast tissue is dense? A mammogram is the best way to know for sure. It is important information, as tumors are harder to spot in dense breast tissue. On top of that, women with dense breast tissue develop breast cancer more often than those with less dense breast tissue. Knowing your breast density helps you and your doctor make good decisions about how often you should get screened.
Reproductive history plays a role. The likelihood of developing breast cancer can relate to a person's exposure to hormones, like estrogen and progesterone. These hormones increase around menstruation, so things that increase the number of cycles increase risk, while decreases in the total number of cycles decreases risk.
For instance, those who had their first period before age 12 are at greater risk. Those who have had children, especially their first pregnancy before age 30, are at decreased risk. Because breastfeeding delays menstruation, it decreases risk further. Inversely, hormone replacement therapy after menopause and for more than 5 years increases breast cancer risk, as do some birth control pills. These medications require careful consideration by both you and your physician.
The healthy activities add up. All of the things we do to keep ourselves in shape make a real difference when it comes to breast cancer risk. Maintaining a healthy weight, especially during menopause; getting plenty of physical activity; avoiding alcohol, and getting an annual screening mammogram are great defenses against developing a serious case of breast cancer.
Rebecca Hewson-Steller, RN, CN-BN, is a nurse navigator at the SVMC Breast Health and Imaging Center.