According to the American Cancer Society, one in seven women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. One in seven. And no woman—regardless of age, race, economic status, lifestyle, or family history—is completely “safe.” Breast cancer discriminates against no one.
The key to fighting—and winning—the breast cancer battle is prevention and early diagnosis.
What Breast Cancer is: Myths & Facts
While there have been tremendous advances in breast cancer detection and treatment, the headlines can be confusing. We dispel the myths and facts below:
Myth: Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer.
Fact: If you discover a lump in your breast or any changes in breast tissue, it is very important that you see a doctor right away. However, 8 out of 10 breast lumps are benign, or not cancerous. Sometimes women stay away from medical care because they fear what they might find. Take charge of your health by performing routine breast self-exams, establishing ongoing communication with your doctor, and scheduling regular mammograms.
Myth: I’m too young to worry about breast cancer.
Fact: Your breast cancer risk does increase as you get older, but women of all ages can develop breast cancer. If you have a family history of the disease, you should schedule your first mammogram starting at age 35. The American Cancer Society recommends that all women age 40 and older receive a screening mammogram every year.
Myth: No one in my family has (or had) breast cancer so I don’t need to be concerned.
Fact: About 90 percent of women who develop breast cancer have no family history of the disease (although if you do have a family history, your risk significantly increases).
Myth: Most women diagnosed with breast cancer had more than one risk factor.
Fact: All women are at risk for developing breast cancer whether they have known risk factors or not. In fact, the majority of breast cancer patients had no known risk factors, other than being female.
Myth: Breast cancer is preventable.
Fact: Although a drug classified as an antiestrogen called Tamoxifen may decrease breast cancer risk in certain women, the cause of breast cancer remains unknown and is not completely preventable. The real key to surviving breast cancer is early detection and treatment.
Myth: Having yearly mammograms will expose me to radiation, and I’ll get cancer as a result.
Fact: According to the American College of Radiology, the benefits of an annual mammogram, or X-ray of the breast, far outweigh any risks that may occur (the amount of radiation used is minute during this screening and diagnostic procedure). A mammogram is one of the best tools available for the early detection of breast cancer. Mammograms can detect lumps well before they can be felt or otherwise noticed, and the earlier that lumps are caught, the better your chances for survival.
Myth: I’m not going to breastfeed because breastfeeding will increase my risk of getting breast cancer.
Fact: Just the opposite is true. Breastfeeding may actually decrease the risk of perimenopausal breast cancer.
Myth: Knowing you have changes in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene can help you prevent breast cancer.
Fact: While alterations in these genes in men and women can predispose an individual to an increased risk of breast cancer, only 5 to 10 percent of patients actually have this mutation. This is not an absolute correlation. Like your age or having a family history of breast cancer, it’s a factor you just can’t control. But you can let your physician know, perform regular breast self-exams, and focus on the fact your chances of not having this disease are greater than 90 percent.
Sources: National Breast Cancer Foundation and Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation
BREAST CANCER SCREENING TOOLS
The goal of screening exams, such as mammograms, is to find cancers before they start to cause symptoms. According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be small and still confined to the breast. The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are important factors in predicting the prognosis (survival outlook) for a woman with this disease.
Most doctors feel that early detection tests for breast cancer save thousands of lives each year, and that many more lives could be saved if even more women and their health care providers took advantage of these tests.
“Annual screening mammography is the single best way there is to reduce mortality from breast cancer, and experts are in agreement that increased use of screening mammography is the single most important reason for the reduction in breast cancer mortality rates over the past several years,” says Dr. Ellen Abeln, medical director of The Breast Center of Suburban Imaging and partner in Suburban Radiologic Consultants (SRC)-north, Coon Rapids.
However, in recent years, there has been a decline in the percent of age-eligible women scheduling their regular, yearly screening mammogram, and experts are unsure why.
“Breast imaging experts are very concerned that this trend will cause an increase in the mortality rate from breast cancer,” says Dr. Richard Carlson, a specialist in breast imaging at Fairview Southdale Breast Center in Edina (part of a full complement of oncology services available on the Fairview Southdale Hospital campus) and SRC-south. “This is an avoidable public health tragedy.”
For women at ordinary risk, annual screening mammograms should begin at age 40 and continue beyond age 75 as long as she is in good health. For high-risk women, annual screening should begin before age 40 (35 is often the recommended age). A High Risk Breast Clinic is offered in local communities to educate high-risk women on updates in breast imaging and genetic counseling and/or testing so they understand their level of risk and the available options.
Some women don’t schedule a mammogram for fear of it being painful. More women, however, describe it as uncomfortable rather than painful. In order to alleviate discomfort, women should refrain from scheduling an exam the week before their menstrual cycle. Some women also take acetaminophen or ibuprofen before their appointment. The screening doesn’t last long (patients can be in and out in 30 minutes) and there is typically no lingering pain.
After the mammogram, a radiologist interprets the observations made on the scan and predicts the likelihood of breast cancer, based on abnormalities within the breast tissue.
At Consulting Radiologists (CRL) Imaging Southdale, test results are available within 48 hours of the exam. “Patients are anxious and fear the worst until they receive the results,” says Carrie Peterka, clinic manager at CRL Imaging Southdale. “No patient should have to wait 7 to 14 days.”
The board-certified radiologists at Consulting Radiologists provide mammography services, ultrasound-guided breast biopsies, and Breast Specific Gamma Imaging. According to Consulting Radiologists website, an ultrasound-guided breast biopsy is a highly accurate way to evaluate suspicious masses and can help determine if an area is a cyst (always non-cancerous) or an increased density of solid tissue. Breast Specific Gamming Imaging is a “next step measure” in the screening protocol, allowing for the effective management of suspicious and difficult-to-interpret cases, capturing the actual cellular function of the breast.
The message can’t be stressed enough—women need to take the time to schedule a regular mammogram, for their well-being and for their peace of mind.
“Early detection is your best prevention,” Peterka says. “Getting a yearly mammogram really can save your life. The earlier a cancer is found, the better outcome the patient will have.”
According to the American Cancer Society, finding a tumor while it’s still in the early stages gives women the choice of breast-conserving surgery, rather than mastectomy. Finding early stage tumors also helps prevent the spread of cancer to other parts of the body.
General Principles For Lowering Breast Cancer Risk
According to Dr. Lynne Eldridge, author of Avoiding Cancer One Day At A Time and an October 2008 and 2009 panelist at the Breast Cancer Awareness Association Conference in Minneapolis, there are steps we can take to lower our breast cancer risk. She recommends that we:
Take a walk outside. Those who get 1000 IU’s of vitamin D daily have a lower risk of developing post-menopausal breast cancer. If you can’t get out in the sun 15 minutes a day, discuss a supplement with your health-care provider.
Eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Chinese women, who switch from their “vegetable-soy” Asian diet to a “meat-sweet” Western diet, increase their risk of breast cancer by 60 percent.
Become environmentally aware. Only 2 percent of chemicals used in commerce have been tested for carcinogenicity. Use gloves, wear masks, read labels, and read Material Data Safety Sheets on chemicals you are exposed to at work. At home, select environmentally friendly alternatives.
Add a few houseplants to your home. The Environmental Protection Agency has ranked indoor air fourth in environmental causes of cancer. Many sources of carcinogens can be eliminated, but for those that we can’t eliminate, houseplants can help clean the air. The top 11 plants for absorbing indoor air carcinogens, as determined by researchers at NASA, are: Ferns (esp. the Boston fern), palms (esp. parlor, dwarf date, bamboo and lady palm), rubber plant, spider plant, English ivy, Janet Craig (Dracaena), Chrysanthemum, Philodendron, Peace lily, Gerbera daisy, and Weeping fig (ficus). Also, open your windows when possible.
Watch your waistline. Obesity is responsible for 20 percent of cancer deaths in women.
Exercise at least 30 minutes per day. It doesn’t have to be expensive. A fun study demonstrated a greater reduction in breast cancer with “domestic exercise,” eg. dusting and vacuuming, than with other forms of exercise. But, since women who work at home are more likely to develop cancer, choose environmentally-friendly cleaning products.
Minimize alcohol. For women, more than “one-a-day” bumps up risk.
Get enough sleep – in the dark. Melatonin, manufactured by the brain in total darkness, may lower the risk of breast cancer. Blind women have a very low incidence of breast cancer, whereas women who work night shifts have an elevated risk. If you work the night shift, buy dense shades for your bedroom. Night shift work has now been classified as a human carcinogen.
Enjoy your sex life (in a monogamous relationship). Women with a more active sex life appear to have a lower risk of breast cancer.
De-stress – or at least, “feel” less stressed. A Swedish study found women that were more stressed had double the risk of breast cancer. There was no difference based on “objective stress.” The difference was in
“subjective stress,” how stressed they “felt.”
Nurture your spiritual life – While few studies have looked at this directly, both prayer and yoga have been shown to increase natural killer cells, the darling cells in our immune system that feast on cancer cells.
Support Strategies for Family & Friends
Breast cancer patients need the support of family and friends now more than ever as they fight a disease that is filled with unknowns. They need their loved ones to hold their hand, listen, cry with them, laugh with them, act normal, deal with change, stay open and honest, and serve as an advocate. Co-survivors—family, friends, health care providers, and colleagues of the person diagnosed—lend support from diagnosis through treatment and beyond.
Breast Cancer Awareness Association of Minnesota
Mission is to educate and inspire: fulfill the needs and desires of survivors, families and friends for information on the broad spectrum of breast cancer treatment and support services in Minnesota. www.bcaamn.org
Susan G. Komen for the Cure
Promises to save lives and end breast cancer forever by empowering people, ensuring quality care for all and energizing science to find the cures. www.komen.org
Breast Cancer Support and Reach to Recovery Discussion Group
Local outgrowth of Reach to Recovery Program which in most areas is a one-to-one visitation program but in some areas is a support group. Contact your local or state chapter of American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 to determine availability of such groups and availability of trained volunteers. www.cancer.org