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Ask Atrium: Know Your Breast Cancer Risks

Block HSDale Block, MD, discusses the risk factors, tests and treatments for breast cancer.

What are the risk factors for breast cancer? When should I be tested? 

What are the treatment options if I find a lump?

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women, following skin cancer. Over the last few years, breast cancer’s death rate has declined because early detection—by regular screening mammograms, self-exams and physicians’ exams—has resulted in earlier and more effective treatment.

Unchangeable Risk Factors

Some things that you cannot change put you at greater risk for breast cancer. Women are 100 times more likely than men to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but men do get it. As you age, your chances increase, as well; two of three invasive breast cancers are found in women ages 55 and older. White women are slightly more likely to develop the disease, but African-American women are more likely to die from it.

Women who have experienced more menstrual cycles—by starting at an early age or experiencing a later menopause —also increase their breast cancer risk due to a longer lifetime exposure to specific hormones. Women with dense breast tissue are at greater risk and their cancer is harder to diagnose. Five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, caused mainly by the presence of the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 genes

If your mother, sister or daughter has had breast cancer, talk with your doctor to see if genetic testing is right for you. However, less than 15 percent of women with breast cancer have a family member with the disease.

Lifestyle Risk Factors

You can control some of the things that may cause breast cancer. Women with no children—or who had their first child after age 30—have a slightly higher risk, as do women who use oral contraceptives, although your risk returns to normal over time when you stop. Hormone replacement therapy taken after menopause increases the risk of cancer and death. Bioidentical hormones are not proven to be a better or worse option.

Being physically active can minimize your risk, as can breast feeding. However, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and being overweight after menopause add to your chances of getting breast cancer.

Still Under Study

Doctors and scientists continue to research whether these things may influence your risk for breast cancer: diet, vitamins, antiperspirants, bras, breast implants, chemicals and tobacco smoke.

Find Breast Cancer Early

Regular screening mammograms are the best way to detect breast cancer. Although guidelines vary on the best age to start and how often to have a mammogram, everyone agrees that they are a very useful tool to find cancer early. Talk with your doctor about the best mammogram schedule for you.

By doing regular breast self-exams, you will understand what is normal for you. Consult your doctor when you notice a new lump, which may or may not be painful or tender; unusual thickening of the breast; thick or bloody discharge from the nipple; any changes in the skin, such as puckering or dimpling; an increase in size in one breast; or one breast hanging lower than the other.

Talk to Your Doctor

Your doctor, who knows you and your personal history, is your best resource for questions about breast cancer. Ask:

  • Am I at risk?
  • Should I have genetic testing? If I have the breast cancer gene, should I talk to my family members to see if they also have it?
  • How often should I have mammograms and do breast self-exam?
  • What if I find a lump in my breast?

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, it is important to get a thorough evaluation and individualized treatment plan based on current, evidence-based research and treatment options available in your community.

This information is for educational purposes only. Please talk to your physician for advice in all matters related to your health.

These Atrium Medical Center locations offer Gynecology Services.
The Wilbur & Mary Jean Cohen Women's Center at Atrium Medical Center
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