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Breast Cancer Awareness: Risks, Signs, and Screening

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to celebrate the more than 3.1 million breast cancer survivors across the United States. Fox Chase Cancer Center stresses the importance of getting regular screening tests for breast cancer, as it is the most reliable way to find breast cancer early.

“Breast cancer can be treated more successfully if detected in its early phases, while it is small and has not yet spread,” says Kathryn Evers, MD, director of mammography at Fox Chase in Philadelphia. “With today’s state-of-the-art treatment options and less extensive surgery, patients are experiencing better outcomes.”

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in women. It is more common in white and black women compared with women of other races/ethnicities. The ACS estimates that, in 2017 alone, about 40,610 women will have died from breast cancer.

Risk Factors

The main risk factors for breast cancer include being a woman, getting older (most breast cancers are diagnosed in women after age 50), and having changes in certain breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2). Other uncontrollable factors that may increase risk include personal/family history, race, breast density, and menstrual period history.

Some risk factors are lifestyle related. By controlling these, women might lower their risk for breast cancer. They include the use of birth control pills, hormone therapy after menopause, having children, drinking alcohol, being overweight or obese, and physical activity.

“Having one risk factor or even several doesn’t mean a woman will definitely develop breast cancer,” Evers says. “Women need to become educated about the risk factors, especially those they can control, and then adjust their lifestyle accordingly.”

Signs and Symptoms

Every woman should know the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and immediately report anything unusual or worrisome to their physician. While different people will experience different signs or symptoms, others may experience none at all.

“All women should know how their breasts look and feel so they can recognize any changes in them. This is an important part of breast health,” Evers says. “But just being familiar with your breasts should never take the place of regular screenings and mammograms. These tests can help find breast cancer in its early stages, even before symptoms appear.”

Signs and symptoms include the following:

  • lump in the breast or underarm (armpit);
  • swelling or thickening of all or part of the breast;
  • dimpling or irritation of breast skin;
  • localized, persistent breast pain;
  • redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or breast;
  • nipple discharge (other than breast milk); and
  • any change in the size or shape of the breast.

Breast Cancer Screening

According to the American Cancer Society, women at high risk for breast cancer should get a mammogram and an MRI every year.

Women at average risk should consider the following:

  • Women ages 40 to 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
  • Women ages 45 to 54 should get a mammogram every year.
  • Women age 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year or choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.

Source: Fox Chase Cancer Center