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Breast Cancer: Risk Factors, Treatment

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Did you know that breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women? In the United States, about one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. 

In 2022, an estimated 287,850 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 51,400 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer. About 43,250 women in the U.S. are expected to die in 2022 from breast cancer. This makes breast cancer the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women behind lung cancer.

On the bright side, there are also more than 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. Since about 85% of breast cancers are sporadic and occur in women with no family history, it’s even more essential to know the answers to major questions related to risk, diagnosis, and treatment.

What are some breast cancer risk factors?

Sex — Being a woman is the primary risk factor for breast cancer. Male breast cancers account for less than 1 percent.

Age — The older we are, the more likely we are to develop breast cancer.

Race — Breast cancer is more common in Caucasian women, but mortality is higher in African-American women due to the increased prevalence of higher risk breast cancers.

Family history or genetic predisposition — Having one first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) with breast cancer approximately doubles a woman’s risk. Having two first degree relatives increases her risk by 3-fold even without a genetic mutation. About 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary and due to a genetic mutation, which can increase risk as much as 50-80%.

History of abnormal biopsy — Atypical changes in the breast increase the risk of breast cancer by 3-fold.

What are breast cancer risk factors that we can control?

Delaying childbirth until after 30 increases your risk.

Breastfeeding lowers the risk.

Combined hormone replacement therapy long term can increase your risk.

Increased alcohol consumption increases your risk. Women who consume between 2-5 drinks daily compared to non-drinkers have about 1.5 times the risk.

Obesity increases your risk.

Physical activity lowers the risk. As little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week reduces relative risk by 18%.

What can I do to help prevent breast cancer?

Know what your normal breasts feel and look like. Breast self-exams are not generally recommended due to false positives, however, it is important to know what your breasts feel like and look like. If you notice a change, be sure to notify your physician, even if you’ve had a normal mammogram within the year. 

Yearly screening mammograms beginning at age 40. Some of the newer guidelines recommend waiting until 45 or 50 years old, however, the American College of Radiology and Society of Breast Imaging continue to recommend annual mammography beginning at age 40 to save the most lives. All women should get mammograms regardless of family history. Please encourage your friends and family!

Know your family history. It is important to know if anyone in your family has ever had breast or ovarian cancer. If so, it is important to know at what age they were diagnosed. This can impact your risk of developing breast cancer.

Stop smoking. Smoking has been linked to many cancers, including breast cancer.

Exercise. Being physically active for at least 30 minutes per day can lower your risk of breast cancer.

A low-fat diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Also, lower alcohol intake.

What happens if I am diagnosed with breast cancer?

Take a deep breath. This is easier said than done! Everyone reacts differently to receiving a cancer diagnosis. It is important to give yourself time to process this life-changing news.

Meet with your doctor. The first doctor you typically meet with is the breast surgeon. This physician should be someone you can trust and feel comfortable with. They will be with you the entire journey and help guide your different treatments in coordination with the entire team.

Get the facts. There are many different types of breast cancer. Depending on which type you have, the treatments can vary dramatically. Each cancer is unique and we try to individualize each patient’s treatment accordingly. 

Educate yourself. Patients who have educated themselves about their diagnoses are prepared for the next steps. Do not be afraid to ask your surgeon for additional resources. There are some really great online resources that can be very helpful.

Develop a support system. The next several months will be an emotional, mental, and physical rollercoaster ride for some patients. Surround yourself with people who support and love you. Family and friends will want to help and so asking them for tangible things helps everyone. Let them bring you a meal, give you a ride, help with child care, or run an errand for you. Practice saying "yes" to help!

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