To be a woman is to wonder, and sometimes worry, about breast cancer. Almost all of us know someone—a loved one, a friend or a co-worker—who has faced this disease.
That’s why we put together a list of common questions about breast cancer—with answers from our experts:
Q: Is it true that 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer?
A: Yes. “Based on current incidence rates, 12.4 percent of all women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives,” Dr. Elisabeth L. Dupont, a breast surgeon at Watson Clinic Women’s Center and the medical director of Breast Health Services at Watson Clinic, says. “That translates into a 1 in 8 lifetime chance of a breast cancer diagnosis. It also means that you have a 7 in 8 chance of not being diagnosed with breast cancer.”
Q: Breast cancer runs in my family. Isn’t it more likely that I’ll get it too?
A: “A family history does raise your risk of breast cancer. Having a mother, sister or daughter with breast cancer can significantly increase the likelihood of diagnosis,” says Dr. Rachel A. Burke, a board-certified breast-specific radiologist at the Watson Clinic Women’s Center. “But keep this firmly in mind: Approximately 85 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a family history. Simply saying it does not run in my family is not a protective factor. Everyone has to be screened.”
Q: Can’t breast cancer be inherited?
A: Yes, though only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary. That means they result directly from defects—or mutations—in genes passed on by a parent. “The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes,” says Dr. Dupont. “If you inherit either mutation, you have a significantly raised risk of breast cancer.” Your doctor can help determine if a family history of breast cancer suggests you may be a candidate for genetic testing.
Q: How does age affect my risk of breast cancer?
A: “As you get older, your risk of breast cancer goes up,” says Dr. Burke. “Most invasive breast cancers (those that have spread from where they started) occur in women 55 and older, and the average age of diagnosis is 61. I have diagnosed invasive cancers in women as young as 17 and well into their 90s. Breast cancer can happen to anyone, and the risk only increases as we age.”
Q: Does carrying extra pounds raise my risk?
A: “Being overweight does make you more prone to breast cancer,” warns Dr. Dupont. “This is especially true after menopause, when most of your estrogen—which can spur the growth of breast cancer cells—comes from fat tissue. Also, overweight women tend to have higher levels of insulin, which has been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer. “If you’re already at a healthy weight, do your best to stay there. If you’re overweight, try to slim down,” advises Dr. Dupont. “Some research suggests that dropping pounds may protect you from breast cancer.”
Q: Can exercise really cut my risk?
A: “Growing evidence shows that being active is a breast-healthy habit,” says Dr. Dupont.
One study, for instance, revealed that women who walked briskly for as few as 75 minutes to 150 minutes every week reduced their risk of breast cancer by 18 percent.
Q: What else can I do to protect myself from breast cancer?
A: Be aware of the risks of alcohol. “Studies show that even modest drinking—as few as three to six glasses of wine a week—raises the chance of getting breast cancer,” Dr. Dupont warns.
Sit less. “No matter how much exercise you get, long stretches of sitting may raise your risk of breast cancer,” says Dr. Dupont. One study found that women who spend six hours or more sitting outside of work have a 10 percent greater risk of invasive breast cancer than women who sat less than three hours daily.
Avoid or limit hormone therapy. “Women who take combination hormone therapy, estrogen and progestin together, after menopause may be more likely to develop breast cancer,” says Dr. Dupont. “That cancer risk appears to return to normal within five years after stopping this therapy.”
Q: What are possible signs of breast cancer?
A: “The most common sign is a new lump or mass,” says Dr. Burke. “However, sometimes cancers don’t feel obvious, like a pea or a lump. Sometimes patients or their physicians and providers notice the area simply feels thickened.” Other possible signs include:
• Swelling in all or part of your breast.
• Skin irritation, discoloration or dimpling.
• Redness, scaliness, or thickening of a nipple or breast skin.
• Nipple retraction (turning inward).
• Spontaneous nipple discharge other than breast milk.
Be sure to let your doctor know right away if you notice any of these signs so that they can order a diagnostic or problem-solving mammogram.
Q: Can mammograms sometimes miss breast cancer?
A: “Mammograms aren’t perfect—no screening test is,” says Dr. Burke. “They do occasionally miss tumors—up to 10 percent of the time. Even so, mammograms save lives. They give women the best chance of finding breast cancer early, when it’s typically easiest to successfully treat.”
Q: When should I start having mammograms?
A: Watson Clinic recommends a mammography screening schedule that begins at the age of 40—or earlier if directed by a physician—and continues every year afterward regardless of age.
Q: How is breast cancer treated?
A: “Most women with breast cancer have some type of surgery, typically either a mastectomy (removal of the entire breast) or a lumpectomy (removal only of the tumor, plus a small amount of surrounding healthy breast tissue),” explains Dr. Dupont. “Other common treatments include radiation therapy and chemotherapy.”
Q: What are the chances of surviving breast cancer?
A: “Thanks to early detection and better treatments, chances of surviving breast cancer are better than ever before,” says Dr. Dupont. “When cancer is found before it has spread beyond the breast, the five-year survival rate is nearly 100 percent.”
Today, more than 3 million women nationwide are breast cancer survivors.
Watson Clinic offers 3D mammography at our Women’s Center and Highlands locations. Led by a team of fellowship- trained breast-specific radiologists, a breast surgeon, nurse navigators and plastic & reconstructive surgeons, our Breast Health Services division was recently awarded its third consecutive accreditation by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers.