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Preventing and Identifying Breast Cancer

Disease prevention and early identification are important parts of everyone’s personal health care. That’s especially true when it comes to cancer.

In the United States, breast cancer is second to skin cancer as the most common cancer women get and second to lung cancer as the most common cancer for women to die from. But despite how common of a disease it is, there’s still a lot about it that patients may not know.

Here’s a brief overview of how to prevent and identify breast cancer, so you can know what to say when questions come up.

How to Prevent Breast Cancer

Breast cancer can affect people of any gender. But it’s typically more common in older women, and some people are more at risk than others. 

Like many diseases, there are many risk factors, some that we can change and others can’t we can’t. Of the latter, there are many preventative steps people can take to reduce their risk.

Risk Factors You Can’t Change

There are factors in our lives that we can’t change that predispose us to certain diseases. It’s the same case with breast cancer. Here are several risk factors that you can’t change that put someone at higher risk for breast cancer:

  • Age: The majority of breast cancer cases are diagnosed in patients 50 years of age and older. 
  • Genetics: Certain gene mutations put certain people at much higher risk for breast cancer than others. 
  • Family history: If you have a family medical history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer, it’s important to talk with your primary care provider about your risks.
  • Early menstrual periods and late menopause: For people who started menstruating before the age of 12 and entered menopause after the age of 55, the risk for breast cancer is higher, due to the longer exposure to female hormones.
  • Radiation therapy: For patients who have a history of being treated with radiation near the chest before they were 30 years old, they have a higher risk of getting breast cancer as they get older.
  • Dense breasts: It’s not entirely known why, but a higher breast tissue density increases a person’s risk for breast cancer. This is something usually determined during a mammogram. 

Preventative Measures You Can Take

Although there are risk factors you can’t change that might put you at risk for breast cancer, there are many lifestyle choices you can make that can help reduce your risk:

  • Meet and maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid or limit how much alcohol you drink
  • Be regularly physically active
  • Limit your use of hormone therapy
  • Don’t smoke or quit smoking
  • Eat a healthy diet, particularly a Mediterranean diet 

These prevention methods are common to prevent many types of diseases and issues in addition to cancer.

For cases that are incredibly high risk, there may be the option of more extreme preventative measures. In particular, a prophylactic mastectomy is an option that’s occasionally made the news. 

Some people have an almost guarantee of getting breast cancer due to numerous risks they can’t control. While not a guarantee to completely eliminate the risk of breast cancer, a patient might want to discuss the pros and cons of a prophylactic mastectomy with their provider if they discover they are at extremely high risk for this cancer.

How to Identify and Diagnose Breast Cancer

As with any cancer, early identification and diagnosis is critical and can greatly affect how successful treatment is and a prognosis will be. 

Self Exams

Breast Cancer Self-Examination Infographic - An Important step to early identification of breast cancer.

For those at a higher risk of getting breast cancer, it’s important to do regular self-exams. This means being familiar with your own breasts, so you can immediately recognize and keep track of any unusual symptoms.

Not every unusual symptom, like a lump, is a sign of cancer. Other, less serious, and more benign causes can seem like cancer. For example, some implanted birth controls have the side effect of forming benign cysts in the breast tissue.

Encourage patients who have symptoms and are concerned to bring them up with a health care provider for a diagnosis.

Cancer Screenings

In addition to self-exams, women and people at risk for breast cancer should get regular breast cancer screenings. 

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) is a professional organization that makes recommendations for disease prevention. For breast cancer prevention, the organization recommends that women between the ages of 50 to 74 years old should get a preventative mammogram every two years. 

For women between the ages of 40 and 49 years old, the USPSTF recommends they begin to talk with their primary care providers about when to begin screening. 

Women who are at much higher risk should work with their providers to determine the best screening and preventative methods. 

Diagnostic Tests

If a patient and their provider suspect the patient has breast cancer, then there are several tests that a physician can use to diagnose it. 

  • Physical exam
  • Diagnostic mammogram
  • Ultrasound
  • Biopsy
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Not every patient will need every test. The diagnosing provider will decide which ones are necessary.

Although the thought of getting a cancer diagnosis can be a scary thought for many patients, it’s not too late or too early to make the lifestyle choices necessary to prevent and identify cancer early.