October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, dedicated to increasing awareness of the importance of early breast cancer detection. Here are thirty things you should know about breast cancer:
1. Clinical breast exams are as important as mammograms. Mammograms starting at age 40 are crucial (earlier if you have a family history of the disease), but they’re an imperfect screening tool. That’s why an annual clinical breast exam from a doctor is a must.
2. Breast self-exams really can help. You become familiar with what’s "normal" for your breasts, so when something’s off, you’ll know and can bring it to your doctor’s attention.
3. The third Friday in October of each year is National Mammography Day, first proclaimed by President Clinton in 1993. On this day, or throughout the month, radiologists provide free or discounted screening mammograms, and women are encouraged to make a mammography appointment.
4. Don’t panic if you get called for a mammogram “redo” or have calcifications. Many women over 40 have calcium deposits (calcifications), and most of them are benign.
5. Active women are less likely to develop breast cancer. Regular exercise has consistently been associated with a lower risk of breast cancer. A new study from the University of South Carolina suggests that women with high aerobic fitness levels have a 55% lower chance of dying from breast cancer than their less-fit peers.
6. Being overweight is riskiest after menopause. When it comes to breast cancer, it’s the postmenopausal body fat that is one of the most significant sources of estrogen.
7. Steer clear of soy supplements. Soy contains isoflavones, which can act like estrogen in your body and potentially stimulate the growth of certain types of breast cancer.
8. Lumpy breasts don’t mean a higher risk of cancer. Many women have cysts in their breasts that fluctuate, but these types of cysts don’t typically lead to cancer.
9. Pain isn’t usually a sign of breast cancer. More common warning signs of breast cancer include a palpable lump, a change in the size or shape, puckering of the skin, changes (like scaling or discharge), or increased warmth—changes you should bring to your doctor’s attention ASAP.
10. Women with very dense breasts are four times more likely to develop breast cancer. Since mammograms aren’t as effective at detecting cancer in very dense breasts, MRI scans or ultrasounds plus mammograms may be a better course of action.
11. Breast cancer risk is not 1 in 8 for all women. That stat applies to lifetime risk, assuming you live to 85 or beyond. At age 40, the average woman has a 1 in 69 chance of getting breast cancer in the next 10 years; at 50, the risk rises to 1 in 42; at 60, it’s 1 in 29; and at 70, it’s 1 in 27.
12. A family history doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get it. Only about 20% to 30% of people who develop breast cancer have a family history of the disease.
13. If it’s caught very early, breast cancer has more than a 90% survival rate in the U.S.
14. Many factors affect your risk. Family history isn’t the only thing that matters: Other factors come into play, including if or when you have children and how active you are. Discuss all the details of your medical history with your doctor to ensure you’re getting the right screenings at the right time.
15. A father or brother with prostate or colon cancer can raise your risk. These are signs of possible BRCA1 or 2 mutations, a gene mutation that can run on your Father’s side.
16. Get an MRI and a mammogram. Both will increase the odds of picking up small tumors in women who are at high risk. However, an MRI should only be ordered under the care of a breast specialist.
17. If you have the BRCA1 or 2 mutations, removing your ovaries lowers your risk by nearly 50%.
18. Taking certain medications can lower the chances of developing the disease. Tamoxifen and raloxifene are drugs that can block estrogen’s ability to promote breast cancer.
19. Breast cancer is not a single disease. There are different types of breast cancer with different causes. Among the primary ones: estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancers, whose growth is fueled by the hormone estrogen; HER-2-positive breast cancers, which contain a protein called HER-2/neu; and triple-negative breast cancers, which don’t have receptors for estrogen, progesterone or HER-2.
20. Chemotherapy isn’t always a given. These days, doctors do genetic profiling on a breast cancer tumor to gauge a woman’s risk of a recurrence. If chances are low, doctors may not advise chemotherapy.
21. Women who consume even a few drinks of alcohol per week raise their risk for breast cancer. Scientists aren’t sure why; it may be that alcohol raises estrogen levels or interacts with carcinogens.
22. There is evidence that vitamin D helps protect against several types of cancer, including breast cancer.
23. A mammogram can detect cancer up to 4 years before a woman would notice a sign herself.
24. More women get breast cancer than any other cancer.
25. Your risk of getting breast cancer increases as you get older.
26. Breast size is not related to cancer risk. While examining and screening larger breasts takes more time and attention, large breasts are at no higher risk than small breasts of developing breast cancer.
27. Most experts recommend mammography for decreasing breast cancer risk, yet mammograms are an imperfect test. Breast thermograms, which evaluate blood flow and heat, may help to pick up early changes that may lead to breast cancer.
28. There are several treatment options for breast cancer including hormonal therapies, immunotherapies and new chemotherapeutic agents as well as cutting-edge research protocols.
29. Women are a 100 times more likely to develop breast cancer than men.
30. Get your folate, the water-soluble B vitamin that is found in leafy green vegetables, beans and fortified cereals. While experts say that an overall healthy diet may help prevent breast cancer, a growing body of research suggests that getting enough folate ) may help mitigate the increased risk associated with drinking alcohol.