Common Questions About Breast Cancer Screening & Risk Factors

Ear­ly detec­tion is crit­i­cal and breast exams are your first line of defense against breast can­cer. Per­form­ing self-exams, com­plet­ing an annu­al clin­i­cal breast exam and screen­ing mam­mog­ra­phy can iden­ti­fy changes in your breasts ear­ly on when they are most treat­able. If you are unsure of how to per­form a breast exam at home, a provider can offer you guid­ance at your next appoint­ment or screening. 

Under­stand­ing when to begin screen­ing can be tricky because the type of exam and fre­quen­cy between screen­ings varies for each per­son. Our High Risk Breast Clin­ic team answers com­mon ques­tions about risk fac­tors, fam­i­ly his­to­ry and when to begin screen­ing for breast cancer.

What if one of my rel­a­tives (mom, sis­ter, grand­moth­er) has been diag­nosed with breast cancer?

If you have a fam­i­ly his­to­ry of breast can­cer (on either side of your fam­i­ly), espe­cial­ly when it is a first-degree rel­a­tive like your mom or sis­ter, you should noti­fy your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian. This infor­ma­tion helps your physi­cian devel­op a screen­ing sched­ule that is right for you. For those with a fam­i­ly his­to­ry of breast can­cer, genet­ic test­ing may be rec­om­mend­ed. Genet­ic test­ing is a more in-depth assess­ment of your over­all risk and can deter­mine whether you are a car­ri­er of the BRCA gene*.

*The BRCA gene has been linked to an increased risk of breast can­cer. If you test pos­i­tive for the BRCA gene, your physi­cian may refer you to a breast sur­geon for fur­ther eval­u­a­tion and to dis­cuss pre­ven­tive treat­ment options.

What if no one in my fam­i­ly has had breast can­cer? Am I still at risk?

Fam­i­ly his­to­ry is only one of the risk fac­tors asso­ci­at­ed with breast can­cer. It is pos­si­ble to devel­op breast can­cer even when no one else in your fam­i­ly has had it. Oth­er fac­tors that come into play include your diet, weight, lifestyle fac­tors such as exer­cise and alco­hol con­sump­tion and your repro­duc­tive history.

What if I want to reduce my risk? Is there any­thing I can do to pre­vent breast cancer?

While it may not be pos­si­ble to total­ly pre­vent breast can­cer, the good news is there are sev­er­al ways you can reduce your risk. Be proac­tive about your health. Dis­cuss your fam­i­ly his­to­ry with your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian and stay up-to-date on all rec­om­mend­ed screen­ings. You can also reduce your risk with lifestyle mod­i­fi­ca­tions such as fol­low­ing a healthy diet and exer­cis­ing reg­u­lar­ly. Main­tain­ing a healthy weight and avoid­ing exces­sive alco­hol con­sump­tion are two ways to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce your risk.

How do I per­form a self-breast exam?

Talk with your pri­ma­ry care provider or gyne­col­o­gist to review the best method for per­form­ing a self-breast exam. Here are a few tips: 

  • Choose the same time each month to per­form the exam. This makes it eas­i­er to remem­ber to per­form the exam. 
  • Look at your breasts in a mir­ror. Exam your breasts with your hands at your sides, then again with your hands above your head. 
  • Use the pads of your fin­gers to feel for any unusu­al changes around the breasts and armpits. 
  • Look and feel for lumps, hard­ened knots or oth­er changes. 
  • Check for signs of swelling, red­ness or skin dimpling. 
  • Exam­ine any changes in the nip­ples, includ­ing their appear­ance, tex­ture or discharge. 

You know your body best. If you find any­thing out of the ordi­nary or have any ques­tions, fol­low up with your pri­ma­ry care provider.

What if I have denser breast tis­sue? How does that impact my screen­ings and my over­all risk?

Denser breast tis­sue, defined as a​“C” or​“D” den­si­ty score, can increase your risk of devel­op­ing breast can­cer. It can also make detec­tion more dif­fi­cult because both dense tis­sue and tumors appear white on mam­mo­gram images. Dense breast tis­sue may also obstruct the radiologist’s view, mak­ing abnor­mal­i­ties hard­er to spot. As an added pre­cau­tion, addi­tion­al imag­ing may be rec­om­mend­ed, such as a breast ultrasound.

What if I notice changes in my breast or feel a lump?

Any time you notice changes with your breasts, you should noti­fy your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian. Your physi­cian will per­form a breast exam and order addi­tion­al test­ing if nec­es­sary. It is impor­tant to remem­ber that devel­op­ing lumps and oth­er changes with size and sen­si­tiv­i­ty don’t always mean can­cer. These symp­toms can be caused by a vari­ety of fac­tors such as your hor­mones or men­stru­al cycle. The soon­er you alert your physi­cian to any changes, the faster you can begin treat­ment if need­ed – regard­less of the cause.

What if I am ner­vous about get­ting a mam­mo­gram? Will it hurt?

Many women are ner­vous about com­plet­ing their first mam­mo­gram. As with any aspect of your care, I encour­age patients to share their con­cerns with their physi­cian and ask ques­tions to feel com­fort­able about your care plan. It can also be help­ful to speak with friends and fam­i­ly mem­bers who have had a mammogram.

The tech­ni­cian per­form­ing your exam can be a great resource, answer ques­tions and guide you through what you can expect through­out your exam. If you expe­ri­ence any pain dur­ing your exam, let your tech­ni­cian know. A mam­mo­gram can be a bit uncom­fort­able, but it is a crit­i­cal part of main­tain­ing your breast health.

What if I receive a call back after my mam­mo­gram and need addi­tion­al test­ing or a breast biopsy?

If you receive a call back after your screen­ing mam­mo­gram, don’t pan­ic. There are many rea­sons why you may be asked to come in for addi­tion­al test­ing. In some cas­es, the tech­ni­cian may not have been able to get ade­quate views or the radi­ol­o­gist may want to re-exam­­ine a par­tic­u­lar area of breast tis­sue. If an abnor­mal­i­ty is iden­ti­fied, a breast biop­sy can be com­plet­ed with a breast sur­geon, or one of our radi­ol­o­gist that spe­cial­ize in breast imag­ing, to deter­mine whether a growth is can­cer­ous or benign. 

What if I am diag­nosed with breast cancer?

Receiv­ing a breast can­cer diag­no­sis can be over­whelm­ing. You will like­ly expe­ri­ence a wide range of emo­tions and have a lot of ques­tions. To pro­vide you with the care and sup­port you will need, your physi­cian will work close­ly with a breast sur­geon, med­ical and/​or a radi­a­tion oncol­o­gist to devel­op a treat­ment plan based on your over­all health and spe­cif­ic can­cer case.

While it is not uncom­mon to feel anx­ious about get­ting your first mam­mo­gram or to be over­whelmed by a breast can­cer diag­no­sis, it is impor­tant to remem­ber you aren’t alone. Talk­ing to fam­i­ly, friends and your physi­cian about your con­cerns can help you feel more pre­pared and well-informed, no mat­ter where you are in your breast health journey.

What are breast can­cer risk fac­tors for men?

Breast can­cer is a dis­ease that affects both men and women. Though less com­mon in men, the Amer­i­can Can­cer Soci­ety has out­lined cer­tain breast can­cer risk fac­tors men should be aware of: 

  • Aging – Inci­dence of breast can­cer increas­es as men age. Accord­ing to the Amer­i­can Can­cer Soci­ety, on aver­age, men are 72 years old when they are diagnosed.
  • Fam­i­ly History – if anoth­er fam­i­ly mem­ber (blood rel­a­tive) has had breast can­cer, that increas­es risk as well. Approx­i­mate­ly 1 in 5 men with breast can­cer have a close rel­a­tive ‑male or female – who also had the disease.
  • Inher­it­ed Gene Muta­tions – Men with a muta­tion in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have increased risk of breast can­cer. These gene muta­tions have been found in men with breast can­cer who did not have a strong fam­i­ly his­to­ry of the disease.
  • Tes­tic­u­lar Conditions – Breast can­cer risk in males can increase with cer­tain con­di­tions such as an unde­scend­ed tes­ti­cle, hav­ing mumps as an adult or hav­ing one or both tes­ti­cles removed surgically. 
  • Alco­hol – Heavy drink­ing of alco­holic bev­er­ages can increase risk and may be tied to the effects on the liver
  • Liv­er Disease – The liv­er helps bal­ance the lev­els of sex hor­mones, so when it’s not work­ing well, it can dis­rupt this bal­ance. When andro­gen lev­els are low­er and estro­gen lev­els are high­er, that imbal­ance of hor­mones can lead to a high­er risk for breast cancer. 
  • Obe­si­ty – As with women, obe­si­ty is a risk fac­tor for male breast can­cer. Fat cells in the body con­vert male hor­mones into female hor­mones, cre­at­ing that hor­mon­al imbal­ance which puts men at risk for breast cancer.

If you have ques­tions or con­cerns regard­ing male breast can­cer, sched­ule an appoint­ment with your pri­ma­ry care provider. They can assess your risk of devel­op­ing the dis­ease and check any signs and symp­toms you may have.

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