Breast cancer is the single most prevalent cancer among women in the United States. There are approximately 240,000 breast cancer cases reported every year—with 42,000 women dying annually from the disease.
Many do not know that breast cancer also affects men, albeit at a much lower rate, with 2,100 cases reported every year resulting in 500 deaths.
In addition to that gender disparity, there are racial and ethnic disparities in breast cancer incidence and mortality in the U.S. While the incidence of breast cancer is highest for the white population, mortality from breast cancer is highest for the Black population.
Breast cancer is not only deadly and prevalent, it is also expensive. Depending on the tumor stage and type of treatment, the average breast cancer-related health care cost for an individual ranges from $20,000 to $100,000.
It can be easy to ignore breast cancer as a potential problem, but a little prevention can greatly decrease the risk this disease poses to your health and well-being.
1. Know Your Risk Factors
If you know your risk factors, you have a better chance against breast cancer. Recommended screenings can help catch the disease early—and early diagnosis improves survival rate and reduces health care cost. The established risk factors for breast cancer include:
- Age: Most women diagnosed with cancer are age 45 or older. The risk of breast cancer increases with age.
- Sex: Women have higher risk of breast cancer than men. Women’s breast cells are constantly exposed to estrogen and progesterone, which are known to enhance cell growth.
Individuals may also have a higher chance of developing an invasive breast cancer based on other important factors:
- A personal history of breast conditions: History of lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) or atypical hyperplasia of the breast
- A family history of breast cancer: Having a mother, sister or first-degree male relative diagnosed with breast cancer can double the risk of breast cancer.
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Inherited genes: Mutation genes such as RCA1 and BRCA2 can pass from parent to child.
- Obesity (particularly after menopause)
- Postmenopausal hormone therapy: Use of contraception in premenopausal women and hormone replacement therapy in postmenopausal women
- Radiation exposure to the chest as a child or young adult
- Early period or late menopause
- Giving birth to your first child at an older age
- Never becoming pregnant
Understanding how many of these risk factors apply to you can help you determine how to watch for signs of breast cancer.
2. Take Advantage of Online Tools
You can also utilize tools to estimate your risk of developing breast cancer. For instance, the National Cancer Institute provides a tool for estimating five-year risk of developing breast cancer as well as your lifetime risk of developing breast cancer.
Women with a five-year risk of 1.67% or higher are classified as high risk. Taking a risk-lowering drug is recommended to reduce the chance that breast cancer will develop.
Women with a lifetime risk of 20% or higher are also classified as high risk.
3. Participate in Screening
To reduce your risk of mortality due to breast cancer (and the associated healthcare costs), breast cancer screening is crucially important.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends breast cancer screening for women between the ages of 40-74 every other year. Why stop at 74? The available evidence as pertains to the benefits and harms of getting screened past 74 years of age are still inconclusive.
Clinical breast exams, mammography and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are the most common screening methods for breast cancer. If abnormal results are detected during screening, your healthcare provider can conduct diagnostic tests using mammography, ultrasound imaging, and biopsy.
Clinical Breast Exams
A clinical breast exam involves a visit to your healthcare provider where they check your breast tissue for lumps. Despite the commonality of this screening method, however, The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force argues that there is insufficient evidence to recommend clinical breast examination as a standard breast cancer screening method.
Other screening methods may well prove more effective.
Mammography is the most common screening method for breast cancer in women. The recommended screening interval is annual or biennial depending on your risk factors and the shared decision-making process between yourself and your health care provider.
The various types of mammography include film mammography, digital mammography (DM), digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT), and 2-dimensional mammography (S2D).
Many factors can influence the accuracy and sensitivity of the mammography, including the age and weight of the patient, the size and type of tumor, the location of the tumor in the breast, the severity of the of the breast tissue to hormones, breast density, the timing of the mammography within the woman’s menstrual cycle, the quality of the mammogram picture, and the skill of the radiologist interpreting the image.
Although mammography is the most appropriate screening method for breast cancer, it has potential disadvantages such as radiation exposure risk, limited specificity and sensitivity, and overdiagnosis. But its notable advantages are reduced mortality and early detection and treatment of the disease.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
If you determine that you may have a high risk for breast cancer based on the presence of BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes and family history of breast cancer, your healthcare provider may recommend an MRI screening.
Magnetic resonance imaging can generate detailed images of your breast tissue using a magnetic field with computer-generated radio waves. MRIs today can also create 3D renderings of this tissue, allowing a diagnostic from multiple angles.
Since MRIs are about 10 times more costly than mammography, this screening method is primarily used for women who already have high risk genetic factors.
4. Lower your risk through lifestyle adjustments
While many aspects of breast cancer are beyond individual control, there are some ways you can personally lower your risk of the disease.
These include lifestyle adjustments like limiting alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, practicing healthy eating patterns, and limiting postmenopausal hormone therapy.
What Happens if an Abnormality Is Detected?
If your healthcare provider detects an abnormality, they can perform a diagnostic test to confirm or rule out the presence of cancer.
The various diagnostic tests used to diagnose breast cancer include:
- Ultrasound: This method that helps to determine whether the detected breast abnormality is a cyst or solid mass, as well as to locate the position of the tumor.
- Diagnostic mammography (also called full-field digital mammography):This is valuable in determining the position and extent of a tumor.
- MRI: This creates cross-sectional images of the breast and determines dimensions of tumors)
- Breast biopsy: This involves obtaining a piece of tissue or sample of cells from the abnormal breast area and conduct pathological examination in a laboratory setting to determine of the cells are cancerous.
Breast Cancer Treatment Options
If an abnormality is determined to be cancer, there are a number of breast cancer treatment methods you could pursue.
The best options here depend on patient factors such as age, comorbidities and preferences—as well as tumor factors such as stage of cancer, hormone receptors status, and tumor biology (histologic grade).
Common breast cancer treatment methods include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and endocrine therapy. Surgery with concomitant chemotherapy, radiation therapy or endocrine therapy is the most common treatment modality in treating breast cancer.
You Have Options
The purpose of breast cancer awareness is to help the population take steps to minimize their risk of breast cancer.
Healthcare technology has come a long way, and taking preventative measures like these can drastically increase your odds of detecting breast cancer as early as possible, increasing chances of survival and recovery.