Breast cancer screening

At age 40, women can talk with their doctor about the option of starting annual mammogram screenings.

CONTRIBUTED/SSM Health

BARABOO—According to the American Cancer Society more than 250,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year. Breast cancer comes with many questions, but with few simple answers: When should a woman be screened for breast cancer? What does a diagnosis really mean? What are common treatment options? In an effort to go beyond awareness, here are some breast cancer basics.

What is my risk?

All women are at risk of developing breast cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that the chance of a woman having invasive breast cancer in her life is roughly one in eight.

While some risk factors you can’t change – like gender, age and family history – some lifestyle choices can increase your risk for developing breast cancer. Some contraceptive methods and post-menopausal hormone therapies have been linked to an increased risk. Drinking alcohol and being overweight or obese can also increase your risk of developing the disease.

“Certain lifestyle choices can also decrease your risk,” says SSM Health Dean Medical Group oncologist Dr. James Heun at St. Clare Hospital. “Studies suggest that breastfeeding and regular exercise, even just brisk walking for a few hours each week, can reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. Eating a Mediterranean diet, characterized by an abundance of plant foods, fish, and olive oil may also reduce the risk of breast cancer.”

More research is being done to find other ways women can decrease their risk. It is important for patients to meet with their physician to help determine their individual risk for breast cancer.

When should

I be screened?

Screening recommendations can vary, depending on your risk. If you have questions about your individual breast cancer screening needs, talk with your doctor.

Screening guidelines are developed for “average risk” individuals, but it is also important for patients to understand the screening recommendations may change if the patient is determined to be in a higher risk category and could include other screening tests in addition to mammograms.

In 2015, the American Cancer Society updated its breast cancer screening guidelines. Starting at age 20, women should begin monthly self-breast exams and will begin receiving clinical breast exams during their annual exam. At age 40, women can talk with their doctor about the option of starting annual mammogram screening. From age 45 until 55, all women should receive an annual mammogram. At age 55 and older, mammogram screenings can move to every other year or continue annually based on discussion between the patient and physician. Mammograms should continue as long as the patient is in relatively good health and expected to live for another 10 years or more.

What if I find a lump?

“If a woman has a concern about an area of her breast, she should seek medical attention,” Heun said. “This often, understandably, creates a lot of anxiety, but remember to take a deep breath as the evaluation gets underway, as finding a lump does not always translate into finding a cancer.”

When a lump is discovered, other tests are performed to determine if it is cancerous. Because many other breast conditions can cause changes to breast tissue, a lump does not always mean cancer. Regardless of the cause, any time you discover a change in your breast tissue – be it lumps, dimples, changes in size or discharge – let your doctor know.

If a lump or other breast tissue change is determined to be cancer, the diagnosis is not a death sentence. The chances of surviving breast cancer are very high and survival rates continue to rise. When breast cancer is diagnosed very early – at stage 0 or stage 1 – the five-year survival rate is close to 100 percent. At stage 2, the five-year survival rate is 93 percent. A stage 3 patient’s survival rate is as high as 72 percent. If the cancer is not caught until stage 4, also known as metastatic breast cancer – a form that spreads to other areas of the body—the survival rate drops to 22 percent.

Fortunately, there continues to be tremendous research devoted to breast cancer and we are hopeful for ongoing improvements in survival, even in patients with stage 4 disease.

How is breast cancer treated?

“Treatment is tailored to the individual patient with many considerations going into the final treatment plan,” Heun said. “Common treatments include anti-estrogen hormone therapy, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Some patients may also choose to participate in clinical trials aimed at improving outcomes and decreasing toxicities.”

Treatment plans consider factors such as when the cancer is detected, what type of cancer it is and how aggressively it grows. Because each woman is different, each diagnosis and treatment plan is different. If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will work with you to develop a treatment plan that works for your specific needs.