In 2014, the American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 232,670 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in the United States. The disease will take more than 40,000 lives, making breast cancer the second-leading cause of cancer death among American women.
Despite these grim statistics, the death rate for breast cancer has been shrinking since 1989, with greater decreases seen in women under the age of 50. The decline is largely due to increased awareness of the disease, regular preventive screenings and better treatment options. In early 2014, the American Cancer Society determined that there were about 2.8 million women who survived breast cancer or were undergoing treatment.
With National Mammography Day on Oct. 17, it’s time to shed some light on what young women should know about contracting, detecting and preventing breast cancer.
“Genetics plays a large role in the risk for breast cancer,” says Dr. Laura Klein, medical director at The Valley Hospital Breast Center in Ridgewood, NJ. “Women at high risk for breast cancer include those who have a family history of the disease, for example, one first-degree relative (a parent or sibling) who had breast cancer.”
“Having one first degree relative with breast cancer can double an individual’s risk and [having] 2 or more first degree relatives with breast cancer can triple the risk.,” explains Erika Brinkmann, MD, breast surgeon at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, NJ. She adds that Caucasian women are at greater risk, African-American women are more likely to be diagnosed younger, and Asian and Hispanic women have lower risk.
In addition to genetics, other factors which might increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer include starting her period before age 12, having dense breasts, excessive alcohol use and having a first full-term pregnancy after age 30, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Both doctors agree that body weight plays a role in diagnosis. “Another important risk factor is obesity,” Dr. Klein explains. “Being overweight or obese, particularly after menopause, increases the risk of breast cancer.” This is because fat tissue produces a greater amount of estrogen after menopause, and increased estrogen levels contribute to breast cancer development.
Breast cancer screenings are conducted via mammogram, which is a low-dose X-ray exam of the breast that discovers and evaluates changes such as masses, distortion and calcification. Typically two views of each breast are obtained during the process; additional pictures are taken to clarify abnormalities. Dr. Klein describes new technologies available such as digital mammography, an option available at Valley that provides high-resolution images and 3D mammography.
Mammograms require little preparation; women only need to arrive on time without wearing deodorant or powders, says Dr. Brinkmann. The screening uses very low levels of radiation to screen the breast. If findings are suspicious, a biopsy will be recommended to further diagnose the patient.
The higher the risk, the earlier screening should start. “Women with a first degree relative with breast cancer should start screening 10 years before the age of the relative’s diagnosis,” explains Dr. Brinkmann.
Women without symptoms or a high risk for breast cancer should begin conducting self-exams in their 20s, says Dr. Klein, and immediately report changes to their doctor. Those in their 20s and 30s should receive a clinical breast exam from their doctor every three years, and women older than 40 should receive annual mammograms.
In addition to self-exams and medical screenings, being proactive about physical and mental health can prevent the onset of breast cancer later in life. “A young woman can be proactive by maintaining a healthy weight and body mass index (BMI), exercising regularly, employing stress reduction techniques and eating a diet low in animal fat,” Dr. Klein says.
Both doctors emphasize the importance of being familiar with the family cancer history.