Breast Cancer Risks, Symptoms and Detection

Breast Cancer Risks, Symptoms and Detection

You may have heard the statistic: 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life.

How do you know if you are at risk? What are the symptoms of breast cancer? What kind of preventive screening is there?

During this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I want to urge women to talk to their doctors about breast cancer screening. As a board-certified radiologist, I know that mammograms save lives.

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes breast cancer, but we do know that some factors can increase a woman’s risk of developing this condition.

  • Being female. Though men can and do develop breast cancer, women are at much higher risk.
  • Age. According to the American Cancer Society, the median age at the time of breast cancer diagnosis is 62.
  • Health history. Women with dense breasts are more likely to develop breast cancer, as are women with lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) or atypical hyperplasia.
  • Family history. Women with a mother, sister or daughter with a history of breast cancer are at higher-than-average risk of developing the disease.
  • Genetic predispositions. Gene mutations, such as mutations to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, can greatly increase the risk of developing breast cancer. These genetic mutations are particularly prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews.
  • Race and ethnicity. White women are at higher risk than women who are Black, Hispanic or Asian – but women who are Black are more likely to be diagnosed with more aggressive disease.
  • Having a first pregnancy after age 30.
  • Not breastfeeding. Women who breastfeed their children are at lower risk of developing breast cancer than those who didn’t breastfeed.
  • Hormones. Hormone replacement therapy has been linked with breast cancer.

Other risk factors include alcohol consumption, obesity, lack of exercise and smoking.

It’s important to note that some women are diagnosed with breast cancer without having any known risk factors. That’s why regular screening is so vital.

Screening for Breast Cancer

Mammograms help detect breast cancer at an early stage, often before a lump is big enough to feel or to cause symptoms. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently issued draft recommendations stating that “all women get screened for breast cancer every other year starting at age 40 to reduce their risk of dying from this disease.” If women have known risk factors, they should talk with their doctor about the right screening timeline for their unique circumstances.

How does screening and diagnosis work?

Women schedule a screening mammogram, where we take X-ray images of the breasts. Yes, screening mammograms can be uncomfortable, but they take only a few minutes and truly do save lives. And the exposure to radiation is minimal.

Ask your doctor or radiologist how long it will take for you to get your results. Some practices can give them to you almost immediately, while others may require that you wait to receive your results later.

About 1 in 10 women who receive a screening mammogram need to have follow-up imaging, such as a diagnostic mammogram or an ultrasound of the breasts. A breast ultrasound uses sound waves to make a picture of the tissues inside the breast, and allows doctors to see areas that we may not be able to see on a mammogram. And if we have additional concerns, we will do a biopsy of the area.

2D or 3D Mammograms?

Physicians and researchers at Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group and the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Research Institute are participating in a clinical trial, funded by the National Cancer Institute, to determine if 3-D mammograms are better than 2-D mammograms at detecting life-threatening breast cancers. Participants will have the same kind of mammogram every year or every other year for five years. The research team will then follow participants for another three years to determine if they have additional symptoms or are diagnosed with breast cancer.

The researchers are also looking at whether 3-D mammograms might help certain groups of women, such as women with dense breast tissue, women from different racial and ethnic groups, premenopausal women and women who are taking hormone replacement therapy. Learn more about enrolling

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Screening mammograms are so important because some women have no symptoms of breast cancer. Many women do, however, have breast cancer symptoms, including:

  • Feeling a lump
  • Thickening in the breast or armpit.
  • Change in the size or shape of the breast.
  • Changes in the skin of the breast, such as a dimpling
  • Nipple changes
  • Fluid from the nipple

Note: Breast pain is rarely a symptom of breast cancer.

If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor about next steps.

Take Care of Yourself!

Many women are busy juggling careers, children and aging parents. They often don’t take time for themselves. But having a mammogram at the right age and the right frequency for you is a simple yet vital thing you can do for yourself and your family. Mammograms can detect cancer at the earliest stages, when treatment is most likely to succeed. In fact, 99% of women survive breast cancer when it is caught and treated early.

If you are due for a mammogram, please reach out to your medical team and get scheduled. Now is a great time to take care of you!

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