Breast Cancer 101: Everything You Need to Know About Prevention

It’s October, and you probably already know that it’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s difficult to step outside without seeing the myriad of products adorned with a pink ribbon, and companies promising to donate a portion of the proceeds to breast cancer awareness, prevention or research. But breast cancer awareness should be more than just about buying a yogurt, nail polish or t-shirt.

But in order to really combat breast cancer, you need to be aware of your risk, how you might prevent the disease and what your options for screenings are (including how often you should do them). According to the Centers for Disease Control, 11 percent of all new breast cancer case in the United States happen to women under 45 years of age. It is also the second most common cancer in American women.

If you are under 45 years, you may be at a higher risk of breast cancer, according to the CDC, if:

  • You have close relatives who were diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer (particularly at age 45 or younger).
  • You have changes in certain breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2).
  • You have an Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.
  • You were treated with radiation therapy to the breast or chest in childhood or early adulthood.
  • You have had breast cancer or other breast health problems such as lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), atypical ductal hyperplasia, or atypical lobular hyperplasia.

The biggest risk of breast cancer for younger women is genetics. If you’re at risk, you need to talk to your doctor, who may refer you to a genetic counselor, recommend that you get earlier and more frequent screenings and consider medicine or even surgeries that can lower your risk. Who can forget Angelina Jolie’s “My Medical Choice” detailing her decision to have a preventative double mastectomy?

However, even if you are not at a genetic risk, that doesn’t mean that you are completely in the clear. The CDC recommends that, if you are at average risk of contracting breast cancer, you know how your breasts normally look and feel. If there are any noticeable changes, talk to your doctor. Other than the risk factors listed by the CDC, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s National Cancer Institute lists other risk factors, such as drinking more alcohol, getting your period before age 12, having a full-term pregnancy after age 30, body weight (being overweight or obese) and being physically inactive throughout your lifetime.

Still think you’re in the clear? Well, think again before foregoing the annual doctor’s exam or monthly self-exam. Screening and early detection is one of the best ways of fighting breast cancer. In case you missed it: Sofia Vergara, who turned 45 years old earlier this year, recently reminded us all about the importance of mammograms.

According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, screening tests are used to find breast cancer before you may experience any signs of symptoms. Early detection means that a woman’s chances of survival are at their highest, which is precisely why it is important to have regular screening tests  such as a clinical breast exam (typically done by a health care provider at your regular medical check-up) and mammogram (an X-ray that creates images of the breast in order to allow a radiologist a closer look).

Mammograms are a particularly important screening tool, since they are the most effective way to find breast cancer in most women. Although they might not be the most enjoyable procedure at the doctor’s office (though what, exactly, is ever fun there?), they can find cancers at an early stage which, again, means that the cancer was caught when the chances of survival are at their highest. If you have an average risk of breast cancer, you should begin mammograms every year, starting at age 40, so long as you are in good health, according to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) requires that all insurance companies cover the cost of mammograms. However, if you find yourself in need of low-cost or free options, you can get in touch with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Planned Parenthood, the American Breast Cancer Foundation or the National Breast Cancer and Cervical Cancer Control Program.

Other than being aware of your breast cancer risk and doing your regular screenings, you should also know about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the most common symptom of breast cancer is a lump or mass. However, other symptoms that you should be aware of include: swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt), skin irritation or dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel), breast or nipple pain, nipple retraction (turning inward), redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin and/or nipple discharge (otherthan breast milk).

It is also important to know that mammograms do not find every breast cancer and, additionally, sometimes breast cancer can spread to the lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone to cause a lump or swelling there (even before the original tumor is large enough to be felt). This is why it is critical for women to be aware of changes to their breasts, so that you can talk to your health care professional in case any of these symptoms present themselves. Although they can also be indicators of something other than breast cancer, it is better to be checked out as soon as any symptoms present themselves in order to aid in early detection.

If you find a breast lump, however, what do you do? The first thing: Don’t panic! According to Health magazine, the first step is to check the calendar because, if it’s a week before your period, the “lump may just be a cysta small, fluid-filled sac.”The second thing you should do, of course, is call your doctor. Your doctor will take you to get all of the right tests (such as an ultrasound and a biopsy, if you need it). And then go from there. If the lump is cancer, you will need to discuss options for surgery and treatment with your specialist.

The most important thing when it comes to honoring National Breast Cancer Awareness Month every October is to make sure that you are educated on this topic and doing everything you can to stay healthy. According to the Mayo Clinic, you can reduce your risk of breast cancer by limiting alcohol, not smoking, controlling your weight, being physically active, breast-feeding and avoiding exposure to radiation and environmental pollution.

And, as Sofia Vergara reminded us, getting regular screenings.

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