Every October, communities around the country rally behind fundraising events and education campaigns to generate awareness around breast cancer. Early stages of breast cancer often have no symptoms, so with over 281,550 cases predicted for 2021, recommended regular screenings have the potential to save thousands of lives.
Daniel Herron, MD, a diagnostic radiology specialist with Dignity Health Advanced Imaging, provides insight on who is at risk for breast cancer and guidance on prevention.
Who Is at Risk?
Individuals who have a family history of breast cancer are at higher risk than those with no hereditary cases. While genetics can play a role in developing breast cancer, Dr. Herron says 80-90% of breast cancer diagnoses occur with no prior family history.
The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are two key players in helping the body fight off dangerous cancers. When working properly, these genes help keep the body from developing harmful cancerous cells. Inherited mutations in these genes are a known risk factor for several types of cancers including breast and ovarian. According to Dr. Herron, 1 in 500 women in the U.S. carry at least one of these BRCA gene mutations. Those women have anywhere from a 40-80% risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. Most women will not know if they have a BRCA mutation, so routine mammograms are still the best way to detect breast cancer.
Men are often left out of the conversation when it comes to breast cancer. Though rare, about 1% of all breast cancers occur in men. Dr. Herron explains that men with the BRCA gene mutations are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Breast cancer is often found much later in men, partially due to insufficient screenings. For men with breast cancer, the 10 year survival rate is about 30%, which is much lower than in women. Dr. Herron recommends that men check in with their physician if they have any concerns about their breast health.
African American women are at higher risk of developing breast cancer, specifically Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC). TNBC advances more quickly than other types of breast cancer and typically appears at a more advanced stage by the time a patient receives diagnosis.
Dr. Herron also notes that transgender women may also benefit from routine screenings, depending on their years of gender-affirming hormone use. Transgender women are also at a higher risk of receiving a diagnosis at a later stage due to insufficient screenings.
Most women are familiar with self-examinations as a tool to detect breast cancer. It is important to know, however, that while self-exams are important for noticing changes in your body, they should not be relied upon as a sole preventative measure.
“Patients with early forms of breast cancer rarely have any symptoms,” says Dr. Herron. “In fact, when a woman finds cancer that is palpable, it is often in a more advanced stage and has spread to other parts of the body.”
Because of this quick, but often noticeable progression, Dr. Herron strongly recommends routine mammograms screening as the most reliable, effective way to detect breast cancer early on.
Many professional societies including the American College of Radiology and the Society of Breast Imaging, recommend that annual screenings begin at age 40. For some women with breast cancer in their family history, it may be beneficial to talk to your doctor about starting screenings earlier, at age 30. Annual screenings lower the chances of dying from breast cancer by about 40%, as well as the need for chemotherapy, radiation and mastectomy.
In addition to annual screenings, online risk assessment tools are helpful, but should not be used as the only detection method. The Tyrer-Cuzick IBIS Risk Assessment Calculator is an easy way to find the probability of developing breast cancer. It uses factors like age, weight and family history. One key factor in measuring your risk, however, is determining breast density, which can only be measured with a mammogram.
Lastly, Dr. Herron points to healthy lifestyle choices including limiting alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising daily as preventative measures for breast cancer. In fact, exercise has been shown to not only prevent many types of cancer, but also improve survival rate in cancer patients.
Breast cancer often has no symptoms until diagnosed at a later stage, which is why regular mammogram screenings are the best method for detection.
About 80-90% of breast cancer cases develop in patients who have no genetic or family history of the disease. Genetics do play a role in some cases, including patients with BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations. It’s important for everyone to understand breast cancer risk and take steps to live a healthy lifestyle to support breast cancer prevention.
If breast cancer is detected, there are treatment options. If you or a loved one believe you’re at risk for developing breast cancer, reach out to your primary care doctor to discuss preventative measures, family history or schedule a screening.