One in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer sometime in their lifetimes, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. It is the most common cancer diagnosed among women, with over 250,000 new diagnoses each year.
However, it is also a highly treatable cancer, says the American Cancer Society, with a 5-year survival rate of close to 100 percent for those who are diagnosed with stage I or II breast cancer.
Know your breast cancer risk factors
The key to catching breast cancer in these early stages is twofold, says Dr. Amie Jackson, oncologist with TriHealth Cancer Institute. First, you should know your risk factors.
“Breast cancer is a very common malignancy in women,” Jackson says. “Most of the time there isn’t an identifiable cause.”
However, your risk increases with age, with post-menopausal women at highest risk.
“Cancer-predisposing genes can be passed through families, leading to much higher risk for breast and other cancers, often occurring at much younger ages than average,” Jackson says.
Women with family histories of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes have a higher chance of developing breast cancer than others, and genetic testing will identify these high-risk individuals. Discuss your family’s medical history with your physician, who will help you decide when to start getting screened or whether to consider genetic testing.
Lifestyle risk factors include obesity and excessive alcohol intake, so reducing alcohol consumption, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight can lower your risk of developing breast cancer.
Take the test — a mammogram
The Susan G. Komen breast cancer organization lists 40 as the age most doctors suggest women start getting annual breast exams called mammograms. Speak with your doctor to find out the right age for you to start annual exams. If you have a family history of breast cancer, your doctor may suggest a younger age.
Mammograms work by placing a patient’s breast on a flat support plate and having it compressed with a parallel plate, explains the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. Compression keeps the breast from moving, which prevents images of the breast tissue from blurring, and evens out the breast tissue so that small abnormalities like microcalcifications (possible symptoms of breast cancer) can be detected.
During the exam, the machine captures a burst of X-rays that create a digital image of the breast. The exam takes only a few minutes, but it can reveal high-density regions or abnormal configurations that might indicate the presence of a tumor.
Mammograms usually detect a cancerous tumor before you can feel it through a self-breast exam. However, Jackson suggests women become familiar with the look and feel of their breasts by looking for new lumps, nipple discharge, skin rash, and changes in the contour, symmetry or skin of the breast. Bring up any concerns you have with your primary care physician.
Know where to go
Even if you don't live in an area with mammogram services, you have options. TriHealth operates a Women's Services Van that offers digital screening mammography at businesses, clinics, churches and other locations in the Greater Cincinnati area. Check the calendar to see where the van will be, or arrange for it to come and serve your employees or community members.
You can also schedule a mammogram at one of TriHealth’s eight locations, call 513-569-6777, or book an appointment online through MyChart.