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Women's Health

Breast Cancer - Risk, Prevention and Screening

NetWellness experts receive many questions about breast cancer. Breast cancer, like all other cancers, forms when the process of cell division goes awry. Normally, cells are constantly dividing and dying ensuring that there is a balance between cell death and cell growth. Tumor cells do not have the same checks and balances that affect the normal cell cycle.

Non-cancerous tumors (benign) are generally not life threatening. This is because they don't usually invade surrounding tissue and spread, are easily removed, and don't tend to grow back after removal. Cancerous tumors (malignant) can be life threatening. This is because they can invade surrounding tissue, have the potential of spreading throughout the body, and though they can be removed they have a risk of to growing back.

Risk Factors

After extensive research some factors have been found that may put you at higher risk to develop breast cancer. Some of these risk factors include:

Age: Your risk increases as you get older.

Previous breast cancer: Having a personal history of breast cancer: If you've had cancer in one breast you are more likely to develop it in the other.

Family history: Women with mothers, sisters, or daughters with breast cancer may be more likely to develop it. See this NetWellness original on Inherited Breast Cancer for more information.

Premalignant changes on biopsy: Some women have atypical cells in their breast tissue that may develop into cancer.

Gene changes: Abnormalities in two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, sometimes may be inherited from either parent, increasing the risk of developing breast cancer.

Reproductive history:

Hormone therapy: Women who take menopausal hormone therapy with estrogen plus progestin after menopause have an increased risk of breast cancer.

Radiation therapy to the chest: Women who have been treated for other illnesses by this method are more likely to develop breast cancer. This risk is highest for girls treated with radiation during adolescence (during the time of breast development). 

Breast density: Denser breast tissue in older women may indicate increased susceptibility.

Poor lifestyle habits increase breast cancer risk:

Prevention

Knowing your own personal risk factors is only part of staying healthy. Listed below are some guidelines to help you know when it's time to be checked and how to check for the possibility of breast cancer.

Screening Guidelines

Though it is of course important to have a mammography when you already believe you have found something abnormal, it is also important that you have mammographies on a regular basis even if you do not suspect anything unusual yet. This will allow early detection you notice a problem. Below are guidelines for performing screening mammograms.

If you're age 40 or older, you should have screening mammograms every year. There is no upper age limit on when to stop screening mammograms, as long a other health conditions are not serious and a woman is healthy enough to undergo breast cancer treatment if cancer is detected.

Family medical history - If you are at increased risk of developing breast cancer because of family history, known to have abnormal BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genes, or because of previous premalignant changes on biopsy, screening may be recommended at a younger age than 40. Sometimes breast MRIs (a more sophisticated imaging technique) are used in such individuals. Women at increased risk should have regular check-ups with a medical provider skilled in breast cancer screening and knowledgeable about the latest screening recommendations and techniques.

Screening Methods

The following screening techniques help in early detection of breast cancer and improve chances of survival significantly.

Breast Self-Exam - Performing regular breast self-exams (monthly is recommended) will ensure that you are familiar with your normal fluctuation in breast consistency. This interactive feature developed by the Minority Health Initiative provides training on how to perform a breast self exam.

Clinical Breast Exams - This is a touch test similar to the breast self-exam, but is performed by your health care provider. All areas of the breast are carefully pressed to find lumps that may no be seen on mammogram.

Mammograms - This is a diagnostic tool in which x-rays are taken of your breast to reveal abnormal tissues. Mammograms can detect small breast tumors in two ways: Early breast cancers often leave tiny calcium deposits in the breast as cells die, and these can be seen on the mammograms. Other breast tumors are revealed by showing masses or shadows that look like ?white spots? on an otherwise dark breast image. Either way, these mammogram changes can be the first signal that there may be abnormal cells developing in the breast.

More features about Breast Health

Breast cancer is a serious disease but it is treatable if caught early on. The NetWellness features listed below contain information regarding general breast health.

For more information:

Go to the Women's Health health topic, where you can:

This article is a NetWellness exclusive.

Last Reviewed: Jul 12, 2010

Paula  Silverman, MD Paula Silverman, MD
Associate Professor of Medicine
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University