The Breast Test

Posted by Holland Revelle, M.D.
September 28, 2012

Breast Care

Every October, women hear the same messages: "Get a mammogram." "Mammograms save lives." These messages are followed by uplifting stories of women who have survived breast cancer and scary stories about women who were less fortunate. Decades of breast cancer awareness have given us an onslaught of pink ribbons and breast cancer walks and runs. It is understandable that many women start to tune the messages out and become complacent about their breast health.

The unfortunate reality is that breast cancer is not preventable. There is no magic pill or lifestyle change that will prevent breast cancer. Unfortunately, with each passing year, our risk of breast cancer increases and our vigilance should increase as well. The simple question one should ask is, "What can I do to minimize my risk of getting breast cancer?"

The first step is to identify what your risk is. The average woman who lives to age 80 has a 1 in 8 risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. An individual with high risk has greater than three times the normal risk (a 20 percent or greater lifetime risk). Determining your risk can be tricky, and it is best to ask your doctor to assess you. Or, when you come to the HERS Breast Center in Eau Claire for your yearly mammogram, staff will estimate your risk using a short questionnaire.

There are a number of contributing factors used in determining your risk. The two biggest risk factors for breast cancer are being female and increasing age. Other factors you have no control over are your age at your first menstrual cycle and age at menopause, breast density and family history. Maintaining a healthy weight, routinely exercising and limiting alcohol intake can lower your risk slightly.

As a side note: the long list of rumored breast cancer culprits, such as deodorant, power lines and underwire bras, have all failed to be backed up by scientific studies.

The current recommendation of the American College of Radiology is to get a yearly mammogram beginning at age 40 for women who are considered at average risk. Women with increased risk may best be served with additional screening such as yearly MRIs and/or genetic testing. Women at high risk may also benefit from meeting with an oncologist who is better able to answer questions, determine risk and develop strategies to reduce risk.

If you decrease your modifiable risk factors and get your mammogram yearly, will that prevent you from getting breast cancer? I wish I could tell you that it would, but the sad truth is that in most cases the biggest risk factor for breast cancer is random bad luck. However, screening for cancer with a yearly mammogram has proven to reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer. For now, that is the best we can do.

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