“With a focus on regular exams, developing a partnership with your primary care provider, and keeping up with regular recommended testing, we can catch breast cancer in its early stages.”
-Christine Conerly, Nurse Practitioner, Care Medical
Breast cancer is the one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers among women in the United States, with an estimated 1 in 8 developing invasive breast cancer at some point throughout their lifetime. This year alone, more than 280,000 cases of breast cancer and nearly 50,000 cases of non-invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S.
“It’s important to remember that breast cancer affects breast tissue, and it’s something we all have”, says Lindsey McKeen, chief clinical officer for Care Medical. “Cisgender and transgender men also are at risk, the latter particularly if they have not had any gender affirming surgeries such as removal of the breasts or ovaries.”
If caught early, many forms of breast cancer can be treated. For instance, the five-year average survival rate for women with non-invasive breast cancer is 90%; the 10-year average is 84%.
“While these statistics may be alarming, women are in a powerful position to be proactive in their health,” says Christine Conerly, a nurse practitioner with Care Medical. “With a focus on regular exams, developing a partnership with your primary care provider, and keeping up with regular recommended testing, we can catch breast cancer in its early stages.” There are also some lifestyle choices you can make, which can greatly reduce your risk, like limiting alcohol, avoiding cigarettes, and loading your diet up with antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies.
Here, we’ll answer some commonly asked questions about breast cancer so you can arm yourself with the information you need to prioritize your breast health.
When should I get my first mammogram and how often should I get them done?
“When to start screening for breast cancer should be an individualized discussion, taking personal preferences, family history, genetics, age and other risk factors into account,” says McKeen, “but if you haven't had one by age 50 you should.”
There are varying recommendations and schools of thought on when most women should begin regular mammograms. The American Cancer Society says women may choose to begin annual mammograms at ages 40 to 44, while those 45 to 54 should have them annually, and those 55 and over can be screened every two years, unless otherwise advised. The United States Preventative Services Task Force recommends that women under 50 consult with healthcare professionals about appropriate timing, while women aged 50 to 74 get screened every two years.
Bottom line: You, along with the help of your medical team, need to decide what’s right for you and your breasts. Family history and additional risk factors should be taken into account and medical professionals have many tools to help you determine what is appropriate for your unique situation.
Do breast cancer lumps hurt?
“Most are just normal bumps that you feel during an exam and they never hurt at all,” explains Conerly. But occasionally, these lumps may feel tender to the touch.
My mom had breast cancer at a young age. I’ve heard I need to be screened 10 years before her age of diagnosis. Is this true?
“Breast cancer has about a 10% hereditary risk,” says Conerly. The general rule of thumb is if you have a family member who had breast cancer, start your own screenings 10 years younger than the age in which they were diagnosed.
“There are certain genes that increase the likelihood you will develop breast cancer,” adds McKeen. “You’ve probably heard their names by now: BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, among others. When families have a history of breast or ovarian cancer, these genes are often the ones contributing.”
But there are tools available to help you understand your genetic risk and help make the case to get genetic testing covered by insurance when it’s indicated.
Can breast cancer skip a generation?
Yes. If your grandmother had it and your mother didn’t, you may still be at risk. So if your grandma was diagnosed at 46, you should start your own screenings at 36.
What happens during a mammogram?
You’ll stand in front of an X-Ray machine and have one of your breasts placed on a plastic plate. Another plate will push down on it from above and you’ll hear a few clicks as a picture is taken. The technician will repeat this with your other breast. “You’ll feel a little uncomfortable, some pressure, but otherwise not too bad,” says Conerly. The process typically takes around 20 minutes.
You don’t need to do anything to prepare. Some technicians will tell you to avoid wearing deodorant before you arrive, as the aluminum is said to interfere with the equipment. If you forget, you can simply wipe it off at the clinic.
What do my mammogram results mean?
“Your results will either be normal or abnormal,” says Conerly. Radiologists use the Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System (BI-RADS) to categorize your mammogram from 0 to 6:
0: Incomplete and additional imaging is required
1: Nothing abnormal to report
2: Benign finding, which could potentially be a calcium deposit
3: Likely benign, but requires a follow up
4: Findings are likely not cancer but require a biopsy to double check
5: 95% chance of a cancer growth
6: Only used in the case of a previous cancerous biopsy to see how well the cancer is responding to treatment
I’m a guy. Do I need to worry about my breast health? Can men even get breast cancer?
Yes. While it’s not as common, men can get breast cancer. A man has a lifetime risk of about 1 in 833, and it’s estimated that 2,650 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in males in 2021.
“Anyone who has breasts should check their breasts,” says Conerly.
I’ve heard there is a link between the COVID-19 vaccine and breast lumps. Is this true?
Short answer: No. “People have been experiencing swelling in the lymph nodes, typically under the arm that they got their COVID shot in, and are concerned that it is a sign of breast cancer,” Conerly explains. While likely nothing to worry about, have your health care provider look at it, just in case.
How can I prevent breast cancer?
While there is nothing that can 100% prevent breast cancer, a few positive lifestyle choices can significantly help to cut down your risk:
- Eat a healthy diet: Prioritize fruits and veggies and avoid overly processed foods, excessive soy and unhealthy fats.
- Limit your alcohol consumption: A woman’s breast cancer risk increases by 15% with three alcoholic drinks per week. And 10% for every drink after that.
- If you’re a current smoker, quit. The habit has been linked to higher risk of breast cancer in younger, premenopausal women. It can also increase complications from treatment if you do have breast cancer.
- Maintain a healthy weight and stay active: Aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.
- Know your history: Talk to your nurse practitioner or physician about genetic testing and lifestyle modifications if breast cancer runs in your family.
- Keep up with recommended screenings and appointments: “One of the most important parts of health, including breast health, is a close relationship with your primary care provider,” explains McKeen. “Conversations around how to live our healthiest, longest lives take time, and decisions are made easier when they are made with a trusted partner.”
- Talk to your nurse practitioner or physician about hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptives. Both have the potential to impact risk in some women.
- Assess your own risk: Take this quiz by Bright Pink, a nonprofit focused on breast and ovarian cancer awareness, to get an idea of your personal breast cancer risk.
How can I monitor my breasts?
It is important for all women to be breast self-aware. For women under 50, more than 70% of cases are first detected by the women themselves. It’s important for women to take notice of any changes while they are washing or dressing, and report those to their medical team.
“The American Cancer Society, United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology no longer recommend self breast exams for women of average risk,” explains McKeen.
That said, some women with an increased risk based on family history, age, genetics, and more, may wish to perform an at-home exam. To do this:
Lie down or stand up and place your right arm behind the back of your head. Start from the upper outer quadrant of your right breast and with your left hand, move your fingers inward in small, circular motions with moderate pressure.
Make sure to also check your nipple as well.
Repeat on the left side.
Additional signs to look out for:
- Nipple discharge
- Breast swelling
- Breast dimpling
- Inverted nipples
- Skin changes in the nipple or breast area
What do I do if I spot something unusual?
“Women's breasts are lumpy and bumpy, particularly in the upper and outer quadrants of the breasts,” explains McKeen. And these, she says, can get bigger and smaller with hormone fluctuations that normally occur throughout a woman's menstrual cycle. “If there is a new or persistent lump, or one that seems to be getting bigger or more firm, you should talk with your nurse practitioner about it,” she says.