Breast Cancer: How to Cut Your Risk and Control Your Care
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Breast Cancer: How to Cut Your Risk and Control Your Care

Experts share new information on what you can do to minimize the likelihood of developing breast cancer.

Get Informed

The new breast cancer watchword is targeted -- and that applies whether you're taking steps to prevent cancer, choosing the best screening technology, or ensuring that medical treatments are tailored to your individual biology. The strongest message from the dozens of experts we consulted: Take the time to find out where you fit in and don't be afraid to push for the answers you need.

The first question every woman needs to answer is "Am I at high risk?" If you are, you should be screened earlier and more often and ask about taking tamoxifen or raloxifene (Evista), a newer estrogen-suppressing drug with fewer side effects. Both can reduce your chances of getting breast cancer.

More than 70 percent of women with breast cancer, however, have no known risk factors. The likelihood you'll be diagnosed with breast cancer and the type you get also depend on your stage of life -- how old you are and whether you're before or after menopause when the cancer hits. Breast cancer in younger women tends to be the more aggressive HER2 or triple-negative malignancies. Older women are more susceptible to hormone-sensitive tumors; they're also more likely overall to get breast cancer.

Although you can't alter your genes or stop your biological clock, you can make lifestyle changes that will reduce your risk:

  • Minimize estrogen exposure. Estrogen plays a huge role in the development of most types of breast cancer because it stimulates the rapid growth of cells in breast tissue. Over the years, cells that grow faster can mutate and become cancerous. The cumulative effect of estrogen may be the reason that some 77 percent of breast cancer occurs in women 50 and over, and about 60 percent of primary breast cancers are hormone dependent, which means they grow in response to estrogen and/or progesterone. Any factor that prolongs your exposure to estrogen ups your risk of breast cancer: hitting puberty early (before age 12) or starting menopause late (after 55), having children after age 30 or not at all, and obesity.
  • Get regular exercise. This can cut your breast cancer risk in half. Brisk walking just three to five hours a week will do it; so will jogging or cycling. Exercise boosts immune function, bolstering the body's ability to fight off cancer, and reduces the overall amount of tumor-fueling estrogen the body produces over a lifetime.
  • Watch your weight. An estimated 10 to 24 percent of all postmenopausal breast cancers are thought to be due to obesity or weight gain. Estrogen is stored in fat and therefore obesity increases levels of estrogen. The greater the weight
    gain, the worse the odds: Women who put on more than 60 pounds are up to three times as likely to get advanced metastatic cancers as are women who are not overweight.
  • Check your breasts. While no scientific evidence proves that monthly breast self-exams are necessary, experts still encourage women to become familiar with the appearance and feel of their breasts and report any changes. Cancers in younger women -- one in five hits women under 50 -- tend to be more aggressive, making early detection even more crucial. Make sure, too, to get a clinical breast exam from your doctor every three years if you're under 40 and every year if you're 40 or older.
  • Get regular screening mammograms. These find tumors at earlier stages than other detection methods, says the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center's Donald A. Berry, PhD. Nearly 70 percent of women over age 40 now get regular mammograms, up from 29 percent in 1987. If you have no family history of breast cancer, get one every year starting from age 40.

Getting yearly mammograms helps pick up small tumors not caught by previous exams. Some doctors recommend that women with very dense breast tissue get additional breast tests, such as an ultrasound or an MRI. If you're under age 50 or have dense breast tissue, you may want to ask about digital mammograms, which are up to 15 percent more sensitive than traditional film mammograms at picking up cancers in these groups, the American Cancer Society says.

If You Find a Lump

If something abnormal shows up your mammogram -- or you or your doctor find a lump -- don't be immobilized by fear. Most of the time lumps turn out to be cysts or benign fibroid tumors. But contact your primary care physician immediately. If you are premenopausal, she may ask you to come back a week after you finish your next menstrual cycle to make sure the lump is not just a cyst. Getting the right diagnosis normally a three-step process:

Step 1: The Right Tests

If you're young or have very dense breasts, you'll get a diagnostic ultrasound. This identifies benign fibrous tumors or fluid-filled cysts and doesn't involve extra radiation.

If you're over 35 or do not have dense breasts, doctors may do a diagnostic mammogram of both breasts to see if the lump or suspicious abnormality warrants further testing. If these tests turn out to be negative, your physician may recommend another breast check in three to six months and repeat the diagnostic mammogram and other tests. If you get an all clear then, you can resume regular screenings. About 80 percent of suspicious abnormalities turn out to be benign. But mammograms can miss some breast cancers or even palpable lumps, especially in younger premenopausal women with dense breasts. Your doctor may suggest further confirmatory tests, such as an MRI or ultrasound.

Step 2: What a Biopsy Really Does

"If something suspicious is found, the type of biopsy performed will depend on the size and location of the suspicious finding and whether the doctor can feel it," says Elisa R. Port, MD, a breast cancer surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. "You'll be referred to a radiologist or a breast cancer surgeon."

Needle biopsy. If the lump can be easily felt, the radiologist or surgeon may do a needle biopsy in the office, doing either a fine-needle aspiration or a core-needle biopsy. The first type removes breast tissue through a tiny needle; the second uses a larger needle and may require local anesthetic. If the breast lesions can't be felt, the radiologist or surgeon may use imaging tools, such as mammography, ultrasound, or an MRI, to guide the needle. These can also be done using local anesthetic in a specially equipped radiology suite.

Surgical biopsy. This requires an operating room and usually involves local or general anesthesia. If the tumor is small enough, the surgeon will remove it all, along with a surrounding margin of normal breast tissue. In both cases the tissue is then analyzed by a pathologist. Within two to five days, you should know whether it's cancerous.

Step 3: Understanding Your Test Results

When you get the test results, don't go alone. If your surgeon says, "You have cancer," you probably won't hear anything else afterward. Make sure your doctor explains everything in your pathology report. You may also be recommended for MRIs of the noncancerous breast, a precaution many radiologists recommend. Unless your cancer is extremely aggressive, there is time -- several weeks to a month -- to educate yourself and find your best treatment plan.

Two key questions to ask:

What kind of cancer is it? Most breast cancers start either in the lobules that produce milk (lobular) or the ducts that carry the milk to the nipple (ductal). Either can be just within the location where it started (in situ) or have spread into surrounding breast tissue (invasive). Ductal cancers tend to be in one breast only; lobular may affect both breasts. There are also several very rare types: One looks like an infection (inflammatory); another looks like a skin disorder (Paget's disease of the breast). Or you could have more than one type of cancer.

How aggressive is it? The higher its grade, the more likely it is to spread to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body. One factor to look for: the tumor cell proliferation index, which gauges how fast the cancer cells are growing -- faster means the cancer is more aggressive. Slower-growing tumors give you a better chance for a full recovery.

What's Your Breast Cancer Risk?

For detailed calculation of your individual breast cancer risk, take the questionnaire at More than 75 percent of breast cancers occur in women over age 50. But other risk factors include:

  • Previously had breast cancer.
  • First-degree relative -- daughter, mother, sister -- who had breast or ovarian cancer.
  • Prolonged exposure to estrogen: hitting puberty before age 12, starting menopause after age 55, or having children after age 30 or not at all.
  • An abnormal biopsy even if it later turns out to be benign.
  • A mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene (learning this requires genetic testing; discuss this option with your doctor).
  • Currently taking hormone therapy for menopause.
  • Postmenopausal obesity.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2006.