About 40,000 women die each year as a result of breast cancer.
But the numbers have decreased over the past several years because more women are aware of the disease and have committed to having regular cancer screenings.
Here are the facts that women need to know about breast cancer to stay ahead of the curve:
Know the risk factors
While not all those at risk for breast cancer will go on to develop the disease, it's smart to find out if you are at risk and take any appropriate measures to protect yourself. The MCGHealth Cancer Center offers the following guidelines on risk factors:
Age: Your risk increases as you grow older, with women over 60 at highest risk.
Family history: Make a point to find out if you have a family history of breast cancer. You are at higher risk if your mother, sister, daughter or other relatives had breast cancer, especially if they had breast cancer before age 40.
If a strong family history exists, genetic testing can be done to find out if certain genetic anomalies exist in your family that may increase the risk of breast cancer. If you have had breast cancer, you are also at increased risk of the cancer returning in the other breast.
Reproductive history: Your risk increases if you do not have children, if you were older when you had your first child, if you began menstruation younger than age 12 or went through menopause after age 55.
Estrogen: Women who take estrogen (either alone or with progestin) for five or more years after menopause may be at increased risk. Women who took DES, a synthetic form of estrogen given to pregnant women between 1940 and 1971, have a slightly increased risk. Studies on breast cancer are ongoing for daughters born to women who took DES.
Obesity: If you are physically active throughout your lifetime, you have a decreased risk of breast cancer. You are at greater risk if you become obese after menopause.
Alcohol: Some studies suggest a link between increased alcohol intake and breast cancer.
Race: While breast cancer is most prevalent in Caucasian women, women of all races and ethnicities are at risk for the disease.
Radiation: Women who have had radiation therapy to the chest are at greater risk. The younger you were when you had radiation, the greater the risk of breast cancer later in life.
Know when to get mammograms
While there may not be much you can do to change some of the risk factors related to breast cancer, you can do one very important thing:
Get checked regularly.
Beginning at age 20, women should conduct monthly breast self-exams and receive clinical breast exams every three years. Consult your physician to learn the appropriate way to conduct a breast self-exam.
Regular self-exams are an important way for you to become familiar with what's normal for your body. Becoming intimate with your anatomy can help you quickly discover areas of concern.
Beginning at age 40, women should begin having annual clinical breast exams and mammograms, and continue monthly self-checks.
Women with a family history of breast cancer should consult their physicians about the benefits of starting mammograms at a younger age or having more frequent clinical breast exams. The MCGHealth Cancer Center also offers genetic counseling and testing services.
Know the signs
There are some commons signs that may indicate cancer. They include changes in your breast such as a thickening or lump; a new dimple in the skin of your breast or a new lymph node under your arm. Some less common signs are swelling and redness of the breast.
Even if you have multiple signs, it does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer. The best way to know for sure is to see your doctor quickly, and report what you have found.
Diagnosing breast cancer early is vital, because there are more treatment options, and the chances for eliminating the cancer are greater. So be sure to follow the recommended guidelines for mammograms.
It just might save your life.
(Dr. David Scott Lind is a surgical oncologist at the MCGHealth Cancer Center.)
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