Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States; and is the second-leading cause of cancer death in women of all ages.
In 2013, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be almost 300,000 new cases of breast cancer with nearly 40,000 deaths. Current research estimates that 12 percent of American women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Survival rates are highest when it is diagnosed early; currently there are more than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.
While there are several risk factors for breast cancer, current research identifies these as the most significant:
• Gender: Being female is the most important risk factor. Although men can develop breast cancer, it is 100 times more common in women than in men.
• Age: More than 90 percent of breast cancers occur in women over 50.
• Family history: One close family relative with breast cancer doubles the risk. However, most women who develop breast cancer have no family history.
• Breast density: Women with high breast density are more likely to get breast cancer. Breast density describes the proportion of breast tissue, connective tissue and fat in a woman’s breasts. Breast tissue and connective tissue are denser than fat, and this difference shows up on a mammogram.
• Genetics: Although rare, there are genetic syndromes that increase risk for breast cancer. Genetic counseling is recommended for women with:
– a diagnosis of breast cancer at a young age.
– one or more close female relatives diagnosed with breast cancer at an early age or ovarian cancer at any age.
– a close male relative who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
– a close female relative who has had either breast cancer in both breasts, or both breast and ovarian cancer.
How can you reduce your risk for breast cancer?
• Learn your family health history; talk to your health care provider about your personal risk profile and what screenings are most appropriate for you.
• If you are at average risk, get a mammogram yearly starting at age 40; be sure to ask about your breast density. Have a clinical breast exam at least every three years starting at age 20, then yearly starting at age 40.
• Know what is normal for you and see your health care provider if you notice symptoms such as a lump or knot in your breast or underarm area; swelling, warmth or redness; a change in the shape or size of the breast; puckering of the skin; an itchy, scaly sore or rash; nipple discharge or pain in one spot that doesn’t go away.
• Make healthy lifestyle choices. Reach and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active, and eliminate or limit alcohol intake. Discuss your personal risk of hormone therapy with your health care provider. Breastfeed your children if you can.
• When it comes to cancer, knowledge is power. Organizations such as the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) and the Susan G. Komen Foundation (www.komen.org) are reliable sources for more information.
Registered nurse Gayle Elliot serves as clinical research coordinator and cancer registry supervisor at the North Mississippi Medical Center Cancer Center.