Written by Terry Word Pullen
October is time for pumpkins, cooler weather, and beautiful orange, yellow and red leaves. Another familiar mark of October is sports teams trading out their traditional colors for pink accents in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
I talked with Dr. Chip Wall of the Center for Breast Health and Imaging at the Oktibbeha County Hospital to learn some basic information about breast cancer that I wanted to share with you.
Breast cancer is one of the most common malignancies diagnosed in women, second to skin cancer. According to Dr. Wall, the average risk for a woman to develop breast cancer is 1 in 8. A 2015 study found that of the 231,840 cases of breast cancer diagnosed each year, 40,290 lead to death. Dr. Wall shared some risk factors of breast cancer we should all be aware of.
Breast cancer is more common in older women — the older a woman becomes, the higher her risk. Dr. Wall explained that someone who has early menarche (the first menstrual cycle) before the age of 12, or late menopause after the age of 55, has a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Other risk factors include obesity, smoking, and dense breast tissue. The dense tissue raises a woman’s risk because it can make it more difficult to see abnormalities on a regular mammogram.
I asked Dr. Wall if a woman’s risk was greater if she had a family history of breast cancer. He said that most breast cancers are sporadic (they just happen), but there is a familial component. If breast cancer is more common in your family it increases your risk. It is important to know the age of any family members diagnosed with breast cancer when going to the doctor because, for example, if someone in your family was diagnosed around the early age of forty, your doctor should start mammograms ten years prior to that.
Dr. Wall said that there can also be a genetic component to breast cancer. About 10 percent of malignancies are related to genetics. I asked Dr. Wall what women could do to decrease their chances of breast cancer. He said it is helpful to be in good shape, eat healthy, and not smoke. This is especially important in post-menopausal women, but even this does not eliminate the risk of breast cancer.
When asked when a woman should start mammograms, Dr. Wall said, “A woman who is at an average risk and does not have a family history of breast cancer should start to get mammograms at the age of 40.” He also noted that around age 20 a woman should start annual breast exams with their physician and should also start monthly self-exams to become familiar with their breasts so they can recognize differences. If you find something new or concerning when doing a self-exam it is important to let your physician know.
While you might not have a personal experience with breast cancer, it is important to remember what Dr. Wall said — while there is a higher risk in older women and women with a family history, breast cancer can happen to any woman, at any age. It is important to be aware of any changes in your body, and make sure you are seeing your doctor annually.