Breast cancer is among the most common types of cancer in the United States, which is why regular screening for the disease is important for all women. Like all cancers, breast cancer treatment outcomes improve if the disease is detected early. It’s important to understand the signs of breast cancer, your personal risk, and a screening plan as recommended by your doctor.
What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is, like all types of cancer, a result of the growth of abnormal tissue in the body; in the case of breast cancer, this abnormal tissue typically grows in the milk ducts. Breast cancer can, in some cases, extend to adjacent organs or spread to other sites throughout the body.
What Causes Breast Cancer?
The primary risk factor of breast cancer is age. Most breast cancer patients are above the age of 50, though it is possible to develop the disease earlier. A family history of breast cancer or related cancers can also play a role, however, 85-90% of breast cancer patients have no family history at all. Unfortunately, the majority of female breast cancers are random, which is why all women should have routine breast cancer screenings. Your doctor can explain your risk for breast cancer.
Most female breast cancer patients are above the age of 50, making increasing age the number-one risk factor. You are also at a higher risk if you have a family history of breast cancer—this is especially true if you have a first-degree relative (a parent, sibling, or child) who had breast cancer. Your risk will increase if that relative was diagnosed at a younger age or if they had male breast cancer. Finally, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and excess alcohol use can increase your risk of breast cancer.
If you have a family history, your doctor may suggest genetic testing for breast cancer. This involves testing your DNA to see if you have a genetic mutation which would increase your risk for breast cancer.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer to Look Out For
Any abnormalities in the breast that you notice should be addressed with your physician. Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you notice:
- A lump in the breast, especially near the underarm
- Thickening or swelling of the breast
- Irritation or dimpling of the skin
- Redness or flakiness in the nipple area
- Nipple discharge or blood
- Pain in the breast
- A change in size or shape
If you notice any of these signs, imaging and possible biopsy can identify the cause of your symptom.
Can You Test Genetics for Breast Cancer?
If you have a family history of breast cancer, testing for genetic abnormalities is likely to be recommended so you can begin screening for the disease at an earlier age. Genetic testing serves to detect mutations that put you at an increased risk for breast cancer, which can be inherited. If you are found to have a mutation, this doesn’t mean that cancer is inevitable. However, your doctor will suggest that you have screenings more frequently or earlier in life to ensure that breast cancer can be detected early if you do develop the disease. Since the majority of breast cancers lack a genetic abnormality, however, all women over 40 should have regular breast cancer screenings regardless of their family history or genetic test results.
How Do Doctors Screen for Breast Cancer?
At Carnegie Women’s Health, we recommend screening women for breast cancer with an annual mammogram starting at age 40. Breast cancer can also be screened for using ultrasound or MRI, but mammography remains the “gold standard” for breast cancer screening. During a mammogram, an X-ray of the breast is taken.
Schedule an Appointment
To learn more about your breast cancer screening options or genetic testing for breast cancer, schedule an appointment at Carnegie Women’s Health. Call our New York, NY office at (315) 628-7063 or request an appointment online.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the earliest symptom of breast cancer?
The first sign of breast cancer is often a painless lump in the breast. Many people do not detect lumps themselves, rather, the lumps are detected by a routine mammogram.
Is breast cancer treatable?
Breast cancer is often treatable if caught early on. Localized cancer that has not spread from the breast can frequently be treated before it spreads. Once the cancer begins to spread, treatment can become more complex and outcomes less favorable.
Who gets breast cancer?
All women can get breast cancer, but some are at a higher risk than others. Women at higher risk are 50 years old or older, had their first menstrual period before age 12, started menopause older than age 55, have never given birth, and a family history of breast cancer.
How can I lower my risk of getting breast cancer?
Some healthy lifestyle habits can reduce your risk of developing cancer. These include drinking less alcohol, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthy weight. Breastfeeding can also help reduce the risk.
Can I get breast cancer treatment without insurance?
You can be treated for breast cancer without insurance either by paying out-of-pocket or registering for coverage through programs like the New York State Medicaid Cancer Treatment Program.
What does a breast exam consist of?
During a breast exam, your OB/GYN will conduct a visual exam of the breasts for changes in size or shape or skin changes such as rashes, redness, or dimpling. They will then gently press around the breasts to examine for lumps or other changes.
How common is breast cancer for most women?
Breast cancer is a common cancer for women of all backgrounds and ethnicities. The average woman faces an 11% risk to develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
When should women start screening for breast cancer?
For the average woman, we recommend that women start having mammograms every year, starting at age 40.
What risk factors should women consider?
Family history and genetic factors are important risk factors to consider. Some modifiable risk factors are obesity, smoking, body self-awareness, and compliance with recommended screening tests.
How can women check themselves for breast cancer?
Women are often the ones to detect their own cancers. It is important to get to know one’s own body. Each month, women should stand in front of a mirror to observe how their breasts normally appear. On that same day, we recommend that they palpate their own breasts using soapy water while showering, to get to know how their unique body usually looks and feels. This way, they will be able to recognize when something new appears. If something feels different, do not wait and see how it evolves. Rather, it is important to bring this to the attention of your primary care or Ob-Gyn doctors.
Should I consider genetic counseling?
Patients with even 1 parent, cousin, or grandparent with breast or ovarian cancers should talk to their doctors to see if genetic counseling and testing for hereditary cancer predispositions is right for them.nSome families carry genetic changes that place them at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. These genetic changes are passed on from generation to generation from men and women to their sons and daughters. Classic examples of the implicated genes are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Other cancer predisposition genes include TP53, PTEN, PALB2, CDH1, ATM, MSH2, MLH1, MSH6, PMS2 and CHEK2. Genetic testing can be done by having a blood test or by sending in a saliva sample.
What if I carry a genetic predisposition for breast cancer?
If a patient is found to carry one of these genetic predispositions, they will be sent for breast cancer screening at earlier ages, at more frequent intervals, and might also have screening breast MRI in addition to mammograms, for better detection. Other patients and families are at high risk for breast cancer even if a genetic change is not identified. These women are also sent for breast cancer screening at earlier ages and at more frequent intervals.
Do I really need an annual mammogram?
Yes! We have noticed that many women do not come for their annual mammogram, or they start doing mammograms but then stop coming after several years of normal results. We advise women to mark their electronic calendars to remind them of this important visit each year.