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October is breast cancer awareness month and given that breast cancer is the most common cause of death from cancer for women worldwide, it is fitting that we shed some light on what breast cancer is, its risk factors, how to screen for and prevent this common cancer. While breast cancer can occur rarely in men, it is mostly found in women. Breast cancer starts when cells in the breast start to grow rapidly and abnormally. These abnormal cells can destroy normal breast tissue and may also spread outside of the breast and destroy tissue in different parts of the body. When cancer spreads to other parts of the body from its original site, it is referred to as metastasis. 

The Centers for Disease Control identifies the most common types of breast cancer as, invasive ductal carcinoma and invasive lobular carcinoma. The lobules are the cells in the breast that produce milk. When the cells and tissue that make up the breast lobules start to grow rapidly and invade other parts of the breast, it then becomes invasive lobular carcinoma. On the other hand, invasive ductal carcinoma starts in the ducts of the breast. The breast ducts are tubes that transport breast milk to the nipples. Ductal carcinoma in situ is a type of cancer where the cells inside the breast ducts have become cancerous, but the cells have not spread to other parts of the breast.

Other less common types of breast cancer include Paget’s disease and inflammatory breast cancer. 

Risk factors are things that increase the chances of an individual developing breast cancer. Some of the risk factors for breast cancer include being a woman aged 50 years and older. This does not mean that women younger than 50 years cannot develop breast cancer, but the chances increase with age. Other risk factors include a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer and having dense breasts. In addition, starting a menstrual cycle before age twelve and beginning menopause after age fifty-five years increases the time a woman’s body is exposed to certain hormones and therefore increases the risk for developing breast cancer. 

If there is a family history of certain gene mutations that you may have inherited, then there is also a higher probability of developing breast cancer. The two most common types of gene mutation that can cause breast cancer include the BRAC1 and BRAC2 genes. 

Despite the above risk factors, there are things that we can do to reduce the chances of developing breast cancer. Exercising regularly is one of them. Walking for thirty minutes, four to five times a week helps with weight management. Individuals who are obese are exposed to more hormones as estrogen is stored in fat cells. Maintaining a healthy weight lowers the body’s exposure to hormones. Limiting the intake of oral hormones helps as well. Oral hormones include certain types of birth control pills and estrogen and progesterone replacement pills taken during menopause. Studies have also shown that having a child before the age of thirty and breastfeeding both decreases the risk of developing breast cancer. Reducing alcohol intake is also helpful.

Screening for breast cancer is simple. It involves getting an X-ray of the breast known as a mammogram. The United States Preventive Task Force recommends getting a mammogram every two years starting at the age of fifty and continuing through the age of seventy-four. However, women may make an individual decision after discussion with their primary care physician or OBGYN, to begin screening at age 40 years, if the benefit of obtaining a mammogram earlier outweighs the risk. Women may also want to consider getting a 3D mammogram as opposed to the traditional 2D mammogram. The traditional 2D mammogram takes two pictures of the breast while a 3D mammogram or smart curve mammogram takes several images of the breast from different angles and allows the radiologist, (the physician reading the mammogram), to get a better picture of the breast tissue. Three-dimensional mammograms may also be better suited for women with dense breasts. Check with your doctor and insurance company to see if 3D mammograms are a covered option for you. In the past, women were encouraged to check their breasts at home for lumps, however, both the American Cancer Society and the United States Preventive Task Force, no longer recommend self-breast exams at home to screen for breast cancer.

In summary, breast cancer may be a common cancer, but there are things that we can do to limit our risk of development. Exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight. Limit alcohol intake. Limit oral hormone intake, including oral contraceptives and hormone replacement pills, and get a screening mammogram at the appropriate time. Talk with your primary care physician or your OBGYN about a more personalized approach for preventing and screening breast cancer and let us reduce the number of women that succumb to this illness every year. 

This article is meant for educational purposes only and is not meant to take the place of medical advice from licensed medical professionals. 

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