Cancer causes certain cells in the body to grow out of control, overwhelm normal cells, and impair the body’s functioning – sometimes fatally. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in American women, with only skin cancer being more prevalent, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
Breast cancer can “run” in families. If someone in your blood-related family has had breast cancer, it doesn’t mean you will, but it does increase your risk. It is best to know the risks, prevention, treatments, and prognosis. Note that men can also get breast cancer, but their risk is much lower than in women.
The ACS estimates that as many as 10 percent of breast cancer cases are hereditary. They develop from genetic mutations. However, breast cancer is caused by other factors too.
Hereditary Risk Factors of Breast Cancer
Family history of breast cancer is linked to having abnormal genes that have passed on from generation to generation. Often, family history over three generations is viewed while assessing a person’s risk of breast cancer.
Women with a first-degree relative (mother, daughter, or sister) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer have double the risk of developing breast cancer as compared with women who don’t.
If two or more first-degree relatives are diagnosed, the risk goes up five times. If a male first-degree relative (father or brother) develops breast cancer, the risk increases.
How Do I Know Whether I’m at Risk of Breast Cancer?
Genetic screening for breast cancer involves blood samples being tested in a laboratory.
If results indicate high risk, an experienced specialist can help determine risk-reduction strategies, which may include increased screening and monitoring for early detection, drug therapies, and possibly even preventive surgery.
Regular checkups, and applying recommended protocols and techniques under the supervision of your doctor will help keep you healthy and worry-free.
Additional Risk Factors of Breast Cancer
In addition to heredity, older women can carry an increased likelihood of developing cancer due to any of the following factors:
- Mutations in breast cancer-related genes
- Starting menstruation before age 12
- Starting menopause after age 55
- Never having given birth
- Older when giving birth for the first time
- Taking post-menopausal hormone therapy for 5 or more years
- Medical history of breast problems, like increased breast density or cancer
- Receiving breast or chest radiation therapy
- Post-menopausal weight gain
Types of Breast Cancer
The three most common types of breast cancer are:
- Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – This type of breast cancer has not spread yet into other breast tissues (non-invasive) and is confined to the lining of the milk ducts. It is ideal to catch breast cancer at this stage, before it has spread. Treatment may involve a lumpectomy and radiation.
- Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) – This is an invasive type of breast cancer which starts in the milk ducts and has spread to the fatty tissues outside of the duct. Treatment may involve a lumpectomy or a mastectomy.
- Lobular carcinoma – This type of breast cancer is in the lobes or lobules, which are the milk-producing glands. There are two types of lobular carcinoma: lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), which is not yet cancerous but indicates a risk of developing into cancer, and invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC), which is spreading (metastasizing) to other tissues beyond the lobules.
Minimizing the Risk of Breast Cancer
Lifestyle and behavioral choices can help keep your risk of developing breast cancer at a minimum:
Screening is the most important and effective means of detecting breast cancer. Women who are between the ages of 50 and 74 years should have a mammogram every two years, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. However, those with a family history of breast cancer should consult with their doctor, who might recommend starting regular mammograms as early as age 30.
Recommended screening guidelines include:
- Monthly breast self-exams
- Annual breast exam by your doctor
- Annual mammograms starting per your doctor’s recommendation
Imaging tests for early detection may include:
- Mammogram (X-ray)
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
Generally accepted recommended lifestyle measures to help decrease your chances of developing breast cancer include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Regular exercise
- Limiting or avoiding alcohol
- A nutritious diet
- Not smoking
The two common treatments that are usually used to treat breast cancer after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, have been shown to reduce the risk of developing hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer in women at high risk.
Hormonal therapy is not effective in reducing the risk of hormone-receptor-negative breast cancer, but the following hormone therapies have shown excellent results in many other women:
SERMs (Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators)
Tamoxifen is effective in reducing the risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer in postmenopausal and premenopausal women.
Evista (raloxifene) has been effective in reducing the chance of developing breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
Aromasin (exemestane) has been effective in treating hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
Arimidex has been effective in treating breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
Preventive Surgery for Breast Cancer
Preventive and protective surgery is an aggressive, irreversible option for women at high risk of breast cancer, and this surgery may reduce the risk of breast cancer up to 97%. In this surgery, nearly all breast tissue is removed, leaving few breast cells that are able to develop into cancer.
Women carrying an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene may opt for prophylactic (preventive) ovary removal (oophorectomy) before menopause, as these genes are the main source of estrogen in a premenopausal woman. This could reduce their risk of breast cancer by about 50%.
This surgery doesn’t reduce risk for postmenopausal women, as the main source for estrogen at this stage lies in fat and muscle tissues. Prophylactic removal of both ovaries and fallopian tubes also reduces the risk of ovarian cancer in women at any age, before or after menopause.
The younger the age, the larger the potential benefit of preventative surgery. However, the risk of breast cancer and its recurrence can never be totally eliminated. Close follow-up is necessary, even after prophylactic surgery.
Prophylactic surgery decisions cannot be taken lightly. A team of professionals and full participation by the candidate is required for the best outcomes.