National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October reminds us that breast cancer is one of the most common cancers among women in the U.S. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), one in eight women will be diagnosed with this disease in their lifetime. Most of us are impacted with at least one friend, a close or distant family member, or by a co-worker that has been diagnosed with breast cancer. It is not unusual to know multiple women who have been affected. The reality that we are all at risk for breast cancer is hard to deny and in fact, the NCI reports that the average woman carries a 12 percent risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime.
What we may not realize, however, is that while most women fall into the “average risk” category, we should not assume that we all carry the same risk. For some of us, our risk of developing breast cancer is higher than the average woman’s risk due to personal and family risk factors that increase our chances of getting breast cancer. Knowing our individual breast cancer risk is crucial to learning about ways that we can reduce our risk and for making decisions about breast cancer screening that best fits our specific needs.
Determining your individual breast cancer risk is done by taking into account many aspects of your health and life, such as your age, race, and lifestyle, whether you’ve had any breast biopsies or breast conditions, and if you have had family members affected by breast cancer or other cancers. All this information is used to calculate whether you may be more likely than the average woman to develop breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) considers women who have a lifetime risk for breast cancer of 20 percent or greater to be at “high risk”.
While there is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, understanding your own risk gives you and your doctor the information needed to develop a breast cancer screening plan that is right for you. Early detection of breast cancer is one of the best ways of increasing your chances of survival and it is your individual breast cancer risk that will guide your doctor on choosing the best type and schedule for screening exams that matches your needs for the earliest detection of breast cancer. For example, if you are at higher than average risk for breast cancer, your doctor may want you to have not only a routine mammogram for screening, but also additional tests, such as a breast MRI.
If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, genetic testing may be recommended to determine if you have an inherited genetic mutation that could increase your breast cancer risk to as much as 40-85 percent. For those women who are found to have a genetic mutation, medication or surgical treatment may be offered to reduce the chance for developing breast cancer. If your mammogram reveals that you have overall dense breast tissue, a breast ultrasound is especially important for breast cancer screening along with your mammogram because dense breast tissue makes cancer detection difficult and a breast ultrasound helps the radiologist with screening.
Your doctor will also want to review risk factors with you that can reduce your risk. Lifestyle factors like diet and exercise affect breast cancer risk and learning about a healthy lifestyle can help you lessen your risk. According to the ACS, alcohol use has been linked to several types of cancer including breast cancer and researchers have found that even just a few drinks a week can increase risk. The ACS has also identified that smoking increases breast cancer risk and health care providers can help with effective ways to quit smoking.
At the Beekley Center for Breast Health and Wellness, a breast cancer risk assessment is calculated at every mammogram based on the information you provide at your exam. Women have the opportunity to learn about their risk and discuss it with the breast health navigator, at no charge. If your risk is determined to be high at your mammogram, the breast health navigator at Beekley Center will automatically contact you to advise you about your risk and inform you of the next steps you can take. We have a Breast Cancer Risk Management Program led by Sai Varanasi, MD, FACS, where women who are determined to be at high risk can be referred for a formal risk assessment and management plan.
October’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month reminds us about breast cancer and the importance of having a mammogram. This October, our breast care team at Beekley Center for Breast Health and Wellness, encourages all women to be proactive about their health, schedule a mammogram, and ask, “What is my risk for breast cancer?”
Kathy Albano, BSN, RN, CN-BN, is the breast health navigator, at the Beekley Center for Breast Health and Wellness at Bristol Hospital, 41 Brewster Road, Bristol. For an appointment, please call 860-585-3999 or visit www.bristolhospital.org