Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in the United States. Even though it’s more common among Caucasian and African American women, it’s the leading cancer killer among Latinas. Here’s what you need to know so you can cut your breast cancer risks.
What Is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the breast grow out of control, forming a lump or a tumor. Once a mass is detected, a test called a biopsy is performed to tell if the mass is malignant (cancerous) or benign (not cancerous).
If the mass is benign, you’re out of the danger zone. If the cells are cancerous, they can spread to other parts of the body. Your doctors will help you make the best treatment decisions so you can start as soon as possible.
What Are the Risk Factors?
Your lifestyle, along with many other factors, can increase your risk of breast cancer:
- Being physically inactive
- Beginning menopause at a late age
- Being overweight, particularly after menopause
- Drinking alcohol
- Family history of breast cancer
- Getting older
- Having a genetic condition, such as certain mutations in your BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
- Not having children or having your first child later in life
- Personal history of breast cancer or certain benign breast diseases
- Previous radiation therapy to the breast or chest
- Starting your first menstrual period at an early age
- Using hormone replacement therapy for a long time
- Using oral contraceptives
What Are the Symptoms?
In the early stages, the tumor may be too small to feel and does not cause any symptoms. As it grows, you may experience:
- A new lump in the breast or a lump that has changed
- A change in the shape or size of the breast
- Pain in the nipple or breast that doesn’t go away
- Swollen, red, or flaky skin on the breast
- Nipple becomes tender or turns inward
- Nipple leaks blood or non-milk fluid
Talk to your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms.
When and How to Get Tested
According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, most women should start routine screenings for breast cancer at the age of 50 and continue once every two years until age 74, unless your doctor recommends otherwise. The screening is done with a mammogram, which takes digital images of the breast. It is the best and most reliable way to find breast cancer early, sometimes up to three years before symptoms occur.
Catching it early is important – if cancer is caught in early stages and hasn’t spread to any other part of the body, there’s a 99% survival rate. So, get tested regularly to give yourself your best chance!
What About Self-Exams and Genetic Testing?
You may have heard about these methods – one very old-fashioned, the other high-tech – as ways to help identify cancer early, and you may be wondering if they’re right for you.
Breast self-exams used to be a common recommendation for women, but there has been some debate among doctors if these exams are really beneficial. Some doctors recommend that instead of self-examinations, women learn breast awareness: becoming familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel. If you look at the “What Are the Symptoms?” section earlier in this post, you’ll get a good idea for what to be aware of.
Genetic tests are another method that might not be conclusive for everyone. Genetic tests that look for mutations in certain genes can’t tell you if you have cancer; they only tell you how likely you might be to develop it at some point in your life. Even with a positive test result, you may never develop breast cancer at all. Genetic tests are usually only offered to women with a family history of breast cancer. You can still take the test, but it would not be covered by health insurance and could be quite expensive.
The bottom line is, if you are interested in either of these tests, your primary method of defense should still be working with your doctor and following their recommendations for screenings.
No matter your age, you can help minimize your risk for breast cancer with a few simple healthy lifestyle changes.
- Drink water regularly
- Eat fresh and nutritious foods
- Exercise regularly: in fact, if you’ve ever thought about doing an awareness walk, now is the time and AltaMed can help. Even beyond raising funds and awareness for the cause, participating in a walk or fun-run can help you launch your own set of cancer-fighting habits.
- Get tested today
- Keep stress levels as low as possible
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Maintain a healthy weight
We’re Here for You, Now More Than Ever
Don’t let the fear of going out, stop you from coming in. At AltaMed, we want to ensure that our patients have the proper care and education to take charge of your health. Talk to your doctor about preventive care screenings, like mammograms. It is critical to your overall good health — so don’t wait.