By Dr. Lisa Chapa
“You have breast cancer.” Those are the words no woman wants to hear. It’s one of the reasons so many women experience anxiety before getting a mammogram or skip it all together. That anxiety is not unfounded; breast cancer is very common. We know that about 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. In 2019 alone, it is estimated that 268,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in the United States making it very likely that you or someone you love has already been affected by this disease. Those numbers may sound daunting, but the truth is that the vast majority of women who discover and treat their breast cancer in the early stage of the disease, when it is still small and has not spread beyond the breast, will go on to live long and healthy lives afterward. This is why it is so important to see your doctor and get your annual mammogram.
Annual mammograms are the most reliable tools we have to find breast cancer. Mammograms are low-dose x-rays of the breast that can help find breast cancer before it causes symptoms and when treatment is most successful. The American Society of Breast Surgeons recommends that women should have yearly mammograms starting at age 40.
It is also important to be aware of your personal risk factors for breast cancer. A risk factor is anything that increases your chances of having a disease. Risk factors for breast cancer include being born female, getting older, changes in your DNA such as the BRCA 1 and 2 gene mutations, having family members with breast or ovarian cancer, and prior radiation to your chest. We also know that there are healthy lifestyle habits that actually decrease your risk of breast cancer. Those include maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, and avoiding or limiting alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day.
Knowing your own body is also important. Spend time once a month examining your breasts and looking for the following changes: a new lump, hard or dimpled skin, a newly inverted nipple, bloody discharge from the nipple itself, redness or swelling. These changes are signs that something abnormal is happening in your breast and should be addressed urgently.
If you find that you have many of these risk factors or discover any of these changes in your breasts, it is important to go visit your doctor right away. She will help you decide whether or not you are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer, will guide you through getting a mammogram, and will refer you to a breast surgeon for further treatment if necessary.