Early detection of breast cancer saves lives

By Neha Chawla, MD

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 40,450 women in the U.S. alone will die from breast cancer in 2016. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women behind lung cancer, yet women often put their own health care needs aside because we are “too busy.”  Making time to take care of yourself and to prevent health issues is important for both you and your family.

Regular screenings and mammograms can help detect breast cancer in its early stages, when it is most successfully treatable. The best prevention for breast cancer is to understand your risk factors and how often you should get screened.

Neha Chawla, MD

Risk Factors

The main factors that influence your risk of developing breast cancer include being a woman and getting older - most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older. Researchers have identified certain genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) that, when mutated, increase risk for breast cancer. Other factors that may increase risk include personal and family history, race, breast density, and menstrual period history.

You can control some risk factors. Women who have used birth control pills, have taken hormone therapy after menopause, have children after age 30, drink alcohol, and women who are overweight or obese after menopause have an increased risk for breast cancer. Exercising has been shown to reduce risk. Speak with your primary care provider (PCP) to see how you can modify your lifestyle and reduce your risk for breast cancer.

Having risk factors does not necessarily mean that you will develop breast cancer, and not all factors convey the same risk. Some women will get breast cancer even without any known risk factors, while others may have some risk factors and never develop the disease.

Signs and Symptoms

One of the most important things about detecting breast cancer is knowing your own breasts.

Be familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel, and talk with your PCP if anything seems unusual or worrisome. Here are some signs and symptoms to be especially mindful of:

  • Lump in the breast or armpit
  • Swelling or thickening of all or part of the breast
  • Dimpling or skin irritation of breast skin
  • Localized, persistent breast pain
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or breast
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
  • Any change in the size or shape of the breast

Not all women who develop breast cancer experience symptoms. If you have breast cancer risk factors or any concerns, talk with your PCP about ways you can lower your risk. Ask if breast cancer screening is right for you.

Breast Cancer Screening

Your PCP may conduct a number of breast cancer screenings such as:

  • A mammogram, an x-ray exam of the breast, is used to detect and evaluate breast changes. Its detection ability depends on tumor size and breast tissue density.
  • A breast ultrasound is an imaging test often used along with mammography for high-risk women and for women with dense breast tissue.
  • A breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is an imaging test used to screen high-risk women and gather more information about a suspicious area found on a mammogram or an ultrasound.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women who are at high risk for breast cancer get a mammogram and an MRI every year. Those at average risk ages 40-44 may choose to start annual breast cancer screenings with mammograms if they wish to do so; ages 45-54 should get mammograms once a year; and ages 55 and older should switch to mammograms every two years or make the choice to continue yearly screening.

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, getting quick treatment and good support is important. AtlantiCare’s Breast Health Center provides a coordinated approach to breast health. We make breast cancer diagnoses using the most advanced technology, including digital mammography. Our Breast Health Coordinator works individually with each of our patients to personalize care and offer support. Our Breast Cancer Support Group meets monthly to offer support to breast cancer patients and survivors.

Knowing your body and getting screenings is the best way to ensure your best breast health.

Neha R. Chawla, MD, is a medical oncologist, AtlantiCare Cancer Care Institute, a Fox Chase Cancer Center Partner, and adjunct professor, Department of Hematology/Oncology, Fox Chase Cancer Center