With the exception of skin cancers, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer that affects women in the United States. The condition makes up about 30% of new female cancer cases each year. Men can also get breast cancer, although that is rare. The cause of breast cancer is not yet known, but studies show that it can be treated more easily and successfully when detected early.
Risk Factors of Breast Cancer
Several factors may increase the risk of developing breast cancer. Men and women can control some factors to lower the risk, like changing certain lifestyle habits. Other factors, like genetics or simply aging, cannot be altered. The two main factors that influence risk are being a woman and getting older.
Lifestyle factors that may increase risk include:
- Alcohol consumption
- Physical inactivity
- Use of hormones, including some oral contraceptives or certain menopausal hormone therapies
- Not having children
Uncontrollable factors that may increase risk include:
- Being born female
- Certain inherited genetic mutations
- Personal or family history of breast cancer
- Race and ethnicity
- Breast tissue density
- Certain benign (non-cancerous) breast conditions
- Early menstrual periods before the age of 12 or late menopause after the age of 55
- Radiation treatment to the chest for another cancer when women were younger
A woman may be considered high risk for breast cancer if she has a strong family history of breast cancer or has inherited mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
Watch for Early Signs of Breast Cancer
No two breasts are exactly the same. Breasts can change during pregnancy or nursing, before or after a menstrual period, with weight gain or loss, as women age, or for various other reasons. Knowing what’s “normal” for your breasts can help you become aware of any changes to their appearance or feel. The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or thickness in the breast or under the arm. Other common symptoms of possible breast cancer include:
- Swelling in the breast even if no lump can be felt
- Skin irritation or dimpling
- Red, dry, or flaky nipple or breast skin
- Discharge from the nipple, other than breast milk
- Nipple or breast pain
- Retraction of the nipple (the nipple turns inward)
- Lymph nodes near the collarbone or under the arm that are swollen
Symptoms affect people differently, and some people may not experience any symptoms. While the symptoms we listed can also indicate non-cancerous conditions, it’s vital to speak with your doctor right away if you notice any signs or have concerns.
When to Start Mammograms
Regular mammograms, which are low-dose x-rays of the breast, can be an effective way to detect breast cancer early. Mammograms are considered an essential health benefit under all ACA-compliant health insurance plans and are covered:
- Every 2 years for women 50 and over
- As recommended by a provider for women 40 to 49 or women at higher risk for breast cancer
The recommended mammogram schedule for women with an average risk of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, is as follows:
- Ages 40-44: Option for annual mammograms
- Ages 45-54: Recommended annual mammograms
- Ages 55 and older: Option to continue with yearly mammograms or to adjust schedule to every two years. Mammogram screenings should continue as long as the woman is in good health and is expected to live at least ten more years
Mammograms are not perfect, and a doctor may require additional mammograms or other screening tests to determine if any suspicious findings are cancerous.
Support is available both during and after treatment if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Find online tools, resources, and groups in your area.