Breast cancer screening was in the news recently, as the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) is planning to lower the recommended age for beginning mammograms. The USPSTF and the American Cancer Society now both agree that screening mammography should begin at age 40 for women at average risk.
Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women (behind skin cancer), and the second most deadly (behind lung cancer). Nearly 300,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2023.
Fortunately, the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer is now over 90%, and it continues to rise. This ongoing improvement is due to a combination of early detection and increasingly effective treatments.
Risk Factors and Prevention
Risk factors increase a person’s chances of getting a certain condition. According to the National Cancer Institute, these are the main risk factors for breast cancer (www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/basic_info/risk_factors.htm):
Factors You Cannot Change:
- Older age – being female and getting older increase the likelihood of breast cancer.
- A family history of breast or ovarian cancer, or having inherited genetic mutations (BRCA1 and BRCA2) increase risk.
- Starting menstruation before age 12 or menopause after age 55 increase lifetime risk.
- Having dense breasts – dense breasts make it more difficult to see abnormalities on mammograms and women with dense breasts are more likely to develop breast cancer.
- Exposure of the chest to radiation therapy (for other types of cancer treatment).
- Exposure to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES); this was given to some pregnant women between 1940 and 1971 – women who received DES, or whose mothers took DES while pregnant, have an increased risk of breast cancer.
- A previous personal history of breast cancer or a history of certain non-cancerous breast diseases
Factors You Can Change:
- Breastfeeding your baby reduces the risk of someday developing breast cancer.
- Exercise – women who are physically active have a lower risk of developing breast cancer.
- Maintaining a healthy weight after menopause – older women who are overweight or obese have a higher chance of developing breast cancer.
- Certain hormones, including some oral contraceptives, can increase your risk. Talk to your doctor for more specific details regarding hormone therapies.
- Alcohol use – studies suggest that breast cancer risk increases with increasing alcohol use.
Risk factors are complex in nature. Fortunately, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) offers an on-line Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool available to any healthcare provider, that uses a woman’s personal risk factors to estimate her risk (https://bcrisktool.cancer.gov/).
Screening involves looking for a condition before symptoms occur. Breast cancer screening allows doctors to discover breast abnormalities in their earliest stages. Earlier discovery allows for less invasive treatments with better outcomes.
Mammography, the most common screening tool, takes an x-ray picture of the breast. Mammograms can detect small tumors that are too tiny to be discovered during a physical examination.
Scientists continue to debate the best age at which to begin mammograms. As of May 2023, the consensus appears to be that mammograms should begin at age 40 for all women at average risk. This means they don’t have a strong family history of breast cancer or many of the other risk factors listed above.
Following an initial mammogram, and depending on the results, follow up exams are scheduled annually or semi-annually.
For assistance with improving your lifestyle, reach out to Be Well Solutions (email@example.com).
Written by Be Well Solutions Staff
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