10 Facts About Breast Cancer Every Woman Should Know

10 Facts About Breast Cancer Every Woman Should Know

Must-know facts about breast cancer prevention, risks, and screenings.

By: Maressa Brown

With October being Breast Cancer Awareness month, we’re overloaded with information about the disease all month long. And given that one in eight American women (or 12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, the more we know, the better off we are. It especially helps to be more aware of information we can use in our own lives and health care. Here, 10 must-know facts about breast health.

1. There’s no need to panic if you need follow-up testing after a mammogram. Many women get called in for a “re-do” of a mammogram or other screening. One reason is that many women over 40 have calcium deposits (calcifications) in their breasts that are benign, but show up as white spots on a mammogram. While radiologists can distinguish between what’s harmless and suspicious, it may help to have further testing. Only suspicious spots will require a biopsy.

2. Environmental estrogens may be raising our rates of breast cancer. Synthetic chemicals and natural plant compounds that are thought to mimic estrogen in the body or may even block the natural hormone are found in pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), bisphenol-A (BPA), natural plant products we eat (like soy), and other chemicals. Many of these things have been associated with breast cancer in various studies.

3. Family history counts -- but isn’t everything. If you've had one first-degree female relative (sister, mother, daughter) diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk is doubled. If two first-degree relatives have been diagnosed, your risk is five times higher than average. That said, only about 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, caused by abnormal genes passed from parent to child. But having a relative who was diagnosed doesn’t mean you have these genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2), so you’ll want to speak with your doctor about whether the gene test is for you and if you should start having screenings 10 years earlier than recommended.

4. Dense breast tissue matters. If you have dense breast tissue, it may make you as much as six times more likely to develop breast cancer, according to research. Our breasts tend to get less glandular as we age, but many postmenopausal women still have dense breast tissue. This is not reason to panic so much as it is reason to discuss your breast tissue with your doctor. You may be able to have screenings in addition to a mammogram -- like breast MRI or ultrasound -- that could offer better detection and more information.

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5. Screening (especially if you’re younger) could save your life. Out of 1,000 40-year-old women who do not have mammograms every 2 years for the next 10 years, 2.5 women will die of breast cancer, according to research cited in the Journal of Family Practice. That is just one of many reasons that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation from 2009 that women should wait until they're 50 to have annual mammograms is controversial.

6. Hormone therapy may increase your risk. It bears noting that as the use of synthetic HRT in postmenopausal women has dropped, so have breast cancer rates.

7. Many complementary therapies can help treat breast cancer. Doctors are becoming more and more open to using natural, alternative treatments in addition to medical procedures (like surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and hormonal therapy). These may include nutrition and exercise, traditional Chinese medicine, ayurveda, homeopathy, mindfulness meditation, yoga, massage, Feldenkrais, Reiki, qigong, tai chi and support networking groups. (Patients are advised to talk to their care team before trying any complementary therapy.)


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8. Keeping vitamin D levels up is an easy way to lower risk. Women with low levels of vitamin D have a higher risk of breast cancer. Experts suspect vitamin D may play a role in controlling normal breast cell growth and may be able to stop breast cancer cells from growing. So you may want to have your levels checked regularly by your physician, who might recommend supplements, depending on your results.

9. Exercise is vital. There are a ton of reasons for getting to the gym or just moving more, and lowering breast cancer risk is one of them. Research by the American Cancer Society shows a link between a lower risk of breast cancer and exercising regularly at a moderate or intense level for up to seven hours per week. This may be because exercise consumes and controls blood sugar and limits blood levels of insulin growth factor, a hormone that can affect how breast cells grow and behave. Plus, without excess fat cells (which make estrogen), estrogen levels are kept in balance and won’t raise breast cancer risk.

10. Knowing your body will keep you well. No matter what age you are or your personal history of breast cancer or screenings, it’s important to know your body. Experts recommend doing regular self-exams and getting professional clinical exams often. For women who have battled breast cancer once before, early detection of recurrence can almost double survival outcomes.

What other facts about breast cancer do you think women should know?

Maressa Brown is a senior staff writer for The Stir. She loves writing about and reading up on health/fitness, relationships, and pop culture -- preferably on a beach somewhere.

Image ©iStock.com/hidesy

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