October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

  • Published
  • By Capt. Amy B. Lynn
  • 52nd Medical Operations Squadron
Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women, and about 1 in 8 American women will get breast cancer at some point. Are you up to date on your recommended breast cancer screening?

The most important tool we have to screen for breast cancer is the mammogram, an x-ray of the breasts. The goal of a screening mammography is to detect cancers early, when they're easier to treat.

Most organizations agree that women aged 50-70 with an average lifetime risk (<15%) of breast cancer should have a screening mammogram at least every two years. Women aged 40-49 or over 70 should discuss mammogram screening with their clinician. Guidelines vary for women in these age groups, and women and their healthcare provider should determine a screening timeline after discussing the risks and benefits of screening. Except in special circumstances, women under age 40 do not need screening mammograms.

Research studies investigating the value of self-examination of the breasts as a screening tool for breast cancer have shown mixed results. I recommend breast 'self-awareness' wherein a woman is familiar enough with her breasts to be able to detect changes, but I do not recommend a formalized monthly self-examination for most patients. Patients should be aware of warning signs and seek evaluation by a medical professional if they occur. Concerning breast findings include: a lump or swelling which is usually (but not always) painless, skin dimpling or puckering, nipple retraction (turning inward), redness or scaling of the nipple or breast skin, and discharge from the nipple.

Approximately one half to one percent of breast cancers diagnosed in the US and UK are found in men. There is no recommendation for screening mammography in the average man, however men who recognize any of the symptoms listed above may undergo a diagnostic mammographic evaluation. The risk factors for men are also similar to those of women, specifically genetic mutation and exposure to excess estrogen, which can be due to obesity, liver dysfunction, thyroid disease, or marijuana use. 

A breast cancer risk assessment tool can be found at cancer.gov/bcrisktool/. If you are a woman who is at least 35 years old, this tool can help you and your healthcare provider determine which risk group you belong to so that individualized screening recommendations can be made. It's important to remember that this tool helps to identify a patient's risk group; it is not intended to predict whether an individual will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.

Many things can impact a woman's risk of breast cancer, some of which are in her control and others which are not. Factors which may increase the risk of breast cancer include: having a mother or sister with breast cancer, genetic mutation, first period before age 12, first delivery of a child after age 30, menopause diagnosed after age 55, past or current use of contraceptive pills or hormone replacement therapy, alcohol use, having dense breasts (as seen on mammogram), and history of a breast biopsy.

To decrease the risk of breast cancer, women should minimize alcohol intake, engage in regular exercise, maintain a normal body weight (especially after menopause), and breastfeed their children if they are able.

To see a healthcare provider for an examination or to discuss breast cancer screening, call DSN 452-8333 / COMM 06565-61-8333 to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider or the Women's Health provider.