An Expert Shares the Number One Way to Detect Breast Cancer Early

Updated 10/16/17
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Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a time to support organizations whose missions are to provide treatments and find a cure for the disease that affects nearly one in eight women in the U.S. during her lifetime. It’s also a time to reflect on your own lifestyle and make sure that your health is a top priority, no matter how busy your schedule may be.

“The place to start with prevention is with lifestyle behaviors,” says Margaret Flowers, PhD, director of scientific communications and grants at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. She explains that some risk factors for developing breast cancer are out of your control, while others can be reduced through lifestyle modifications. Besides keeping up a healthy lifestyle and a nutritious diet, you should also be seeing your doctor for breast cancer screenings once you reach a certain age.

If you’ve ever had questions about breast cancer prevention, read on to learn more about staying aware and proactive.

Who's at Risk?

Non-modifiable risk factors are things you can’t control about yourself that may indicate an increased risk of developing breast cancer. According to Flowers, these include being female, getting older, inheriting a mutated BRCA gene, having a family or personal history of breast cancer, and your race or ethnicity. Another factor could be the interval of time between your age at your first menstruation and when menopause begins. That’s because your exposure to natural estrogen can influence your risk of breast cancer, so the longer the interval, the more exposure you’ve had throughout your life.

Dense breasts may also increase the risk, though Flowers says by how much is not clear. “Breast density refers to the amount of glandular or fibrous tissue in relation to fatty tissue in the breast. Breast density can mask—or obscure—a small tumor during mammographic screening, increasing the risk that these cancers may be detected at a later stage.”

Then, there are the modifiable risk factors that you are in control of. Flowers says that alcohol consumption, being overweight or obese, or physically inactive can contribute to breast cancer risk. Childbearing decisions may also contribute to risk. “Women who don’t have children or don’t have their first child until after 30 have a higher risk of breast cancer than women who have children earlier in life,” Flowers says, noting that breastfeeding can slightly decrease breast cancer risk, especially if you breastfeed for one and a half to two years.

According to Flowers, your birth control method may also influence your risk. “Just as exposure to natural estrogen over a lifetime of menstrual cycles can increase breast cancer risk, women taking oral contraceptive may have a higher risk of breast cancer than women who don’t.” However, she adds that the risk decreases over time after you stop taking the contraceptive (the risk is typically gone 10 years after stopped use).

What Are the Most Common Myths?

There are a few common breast cancer myths that Flowers wishes people were more aware of, beginning with the fact that breast cancer is not exclusively a family disease. “All women are at risk of breast cancer, regardless of a family history. Less than 10% of breast cancers are hereditary—caused by an inherited mutated gene,” she says. Additionally, men get can contract breast cancer (about one in 1000 men, to be exact) contrary to popular belief. Another common misconception is that wearing an underwire bra and using certain kinds of antiperspirant can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. Flowers confirms that these are only myths.

What Signs of Breast Cancer Can People Look For?

According to Flowers, an early sign of breast cancer could be a hard lump, which you can feel for yourself or discover in a clinical exam. Other signs include swelling, redness, skin irritation or dimpling, nipple discharge, and breast or nipple pain—though less common. Flowers says, “It’s important for a woman to know what her breasts feel and look like so that she will recognize something different, and to see her doctor when something is not right.” She recommends using a visual app called Know Your Lemons to help you understand what signs of breast cancer may look like.

What Is a Breast Cancer Screening?

“A mammogram is a quick, simple, and noninvasive X-ray picture of the breast, but because it requires breast compression, it can be uncomfortable for some women,” says Flowers. This is the most common kind of screening, used for general screening and as a diagnostic tool to assess a suspicious change in the breast. Flowers notes that because every woman’s breasts are different, the experience of a breast cancer screening varies. She advises women to not schedule their mammogram the week before or after her period in order to avoid pain.

Who Should Have a Breast Cancer Screening (and How Often)?

There are a few different guidelines, but generally, women should start having annual breast cancer screenings around age 45 to 50, and according to the American Cancer Society, biannual screenings after the age of 50. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women have biannual screenings beginning at age 50 until they are 75 years old. Flowers says, “Most insurance plans cover screening mammograms after age 40 (including Healthcare.gov Marketplace plans), so if a woman has concerns about waiting until she’s 45, she should discuss this with her doctor and check her insurance coverage.”

What Can You Do to Reduce the Risk?

Flowers suggests that lifestyle behaviors including diet, exercise, and achieving a healthy weight are the best places to start when it comes to prevention. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 55% of all cancers in women and 24% of cancers in men are associated with being overweight or obese. “By some estimates, physical activity may have the greatest impact on breast cancer prevention,” Flowers says.

If you’re unsure of where to start, Flowers points out some basic prevention guidelines like exercising at least 150 minutes every week (about 30 minutes a day). She also recommends a familiar-sounding healthy diet that includes vegetables, whole grains and is low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids (avoid refined or processed foods and baked goods). Flowers says, “These dietary recommendations are not proven to prevent breast cancer but support maintenance of a healthy weight.” Lastly, she suggests limiting alcohol consumption, as there is “a clear link between alcohol and breast cancer risk.”

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