Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death in women today, second only to non-melanoma skin cancer. To date, the best way to increase survival rates is early detection and early treatment. Cancers that are caught early have much higher survival rates than those that are at more advanced stages.
One of the first steps in protecting yourself is assessing your level of risk. Many people think of breast cancer as affecting only women over 40, but the fact is it can strike at any time, particularly in those women who are in higher risk groups. Admittedly, age is a risk factor; 77% of all breast cancer patients are 50 or older when they are diagnosed. However, age may not be the biggest risk factor.
Another risk factor for breast cancer is having a faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. It is estimated that 80% of women with mutations in one or both of these genes will develop cancer at some point in their lifetime and often at a younger age. Some women choose to undergo genetic testing to see if they have abnormal copies of either of these genes. If they do, they often coordinate a more aggressive screening plan with their physician, including a self exam, physician exam and more frequent mammograms.
Family history of breast cancer, and ovarian cancer, also increases one's risk. The risk of developing breast cancer increases if you have two or more relatives with either breast cancer or ovarian cancer, you have a mother, sister, grandmother or aunt who develops breast cancer before 50 years of age, or you have a male relative (or relatives) with breast cancer. If you have a first degree relative, such as a mother, daughter or sister, with breast cancer, your risk of developing breast cancer is doubled. If you have 2 or more first degree relatives with the disease, your risk increases five fold. As with increased risk due to gene abnormalities, family history often prompts women with increased risk to place more emphasis on self exam, as well as regular physical exams and mammograms.
Having had radiation to the chest and breast area also increases one's risk of developing breast cancer. Some reports estimate the risk to be as high as 12 times the normal risk, although it does vary with the type of treatment and the age at which it occurred. For women who have had previous radiation treatment to the chest area, the usual detection techniques of self exam, clinical exam and mammogram may be performed more frequently.
Regardless of whether a woman has high risk factors, the main screening techniques are still the same. It is simply a matter of frequency. For example, all women over 40 are advised to have an annual mammogram, an annual clinical breast exam and to perform their own monthly breast self examination. For women with higher risk factors, these screenings may be encouraged at younger ages and/or with more frequency. Most women will receive a clinical exam at their yearly gynecological appointment, regardless of age. Many gynecologists also encourage the practice of breast self examination starting early, regardless of history. So it is really mammography that may be increased in the face of risk factors.
The good news is that if breast cancer is detected early by self exam, clinical exam or mammography, the treatment is more likely to be successful and one's chances of survival increase. For example, if the cancer is caught at stage 0, when it has not spread beyond the breast ductal system, survival is 100%. An encouraging statistic shows that 15 to 20% of breast cancers caught in self exam or clinical exam are at stage 0.
While there currently is no cure for this devastating disease, there are many treatments that are most successful when started as early as possible. So spending just a few minutes a month doing a self exam, or about an hour a year setting up a mammogram appointment, can make a huge difference in your survival.