Breast Cancer: 5 Important Facts Every Woman Should Know

Breast cancer remains the second-leading cause of death from cancer among women. The team here at Fred A. Williams, MD, talks to our patients about breast cancer prevention, screens for your personal breast cancer risk, and does a clinical breast exam at your yearly gynecological check-up.

October is special because it’s dedicated as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We’d like to recognize breast cancer awareness by dedicating this blog to five important facts you should know about this prevalent disease.

Fact 1: Sometimes the earliest sign is not a lump

In my practice, I encourage women to perform monthly breast self-exams so they can find a lump as early as possible. The first symptom is often a lump, but here’s a little-known fact: Other signs of breast cancer may appear before you can feel a lump. You may experience:

When you notice any change or find a lump, schedule an appointment right away, even if a recent mammogram was normal.

Fact 2: Breast cancer is not just an older woman’s disease

It’s true that the risk of breast cancer increases as you get older, but your chance of developing breast cancer may come sooner than you realize. Statistics say that 1 in 227 women is diagnosed with breast cancer between the ages of 30 to 39 years. That risk changes to 1 in 68 women beginning at the age of 40.

If you have a family history of breast cancer, you’re more likely to develop the disease at an earlier age. Additionally, having breast cancer in one breast at an early age raises the risk of cancer in the other breast by the age of 40.

It’s also important to know that breast cancer rates are relatively stable in women over the age of 50. By comparison, incidence rates among women under 50 have increased every year for nearly three decades.

Fact 3: Family history and genetic mutations pose different risk factors

Before genetic testing evolved, family history was considered one of the top risk factors for breast cancer. While it does have some influence, only about 10% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of the disease.

However, there’s great value in knowing your family history because it can help you make screening decisions and assess your risk of an inherited tendency.

If you have a first-degree relative with breast cancer (mother, daughter, or sister), you may need to start breast cancer screening at an earlier age and have diagnostic tests more frequently than the guidelines recommend for women at average risk.

If one or more women in your family are diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 45, or if multiple generations on the same side of the family are diagnosed with breast cancer, you may carry a genetic mutation.

Genetic mutations in two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, are better predictors of breast cancer than your family history. If either gene is mutated, your risk is five times higher compared with women who don’t carry the genetic mutation.

Fact 4: Early detection is essential

Like other types of cancer, your outlook following breast cancer treatment is significantly better when your cancer is found before it spreads to nearby lymph nodes or other parts of your body. After breast cancer spreads, it’s hard to treat, and the five-year survival rate drops by nearly half.

Early detection comes from two primary methods: mammograms and monthly breast self-exams. Both methods are equally important.

Mammograms can detect small tumors before you’ll feel them during a self-exam. Self-exams are also effective — about 39-64% of breast cancers are first detected by our patients during a purposeful self-exam or accidentally, such as during a shower.

Fact 5: Breast density affects breast cancer risk

Inside your breast you have fat, glandular, and connective tissues. Women who have more dense tissue than fat tissue have a higher risk of breast cancer compared with women whose breasts contain a higher proportion of fat.

Another concern with dense breast tissue is that it can hide a tumor. When you get a mammogram, which is a low-energy X-ray of your breasts that screens for breast cancer, glandular and connective tissues appear white due to their density. Unfortunately, tumors also look white on a mammogram.

For women with dense breasts, I may recommend specialized screening such as digital mammography, ultrasound, or MRI.

Our team at Fred A. Williams, MD, works closely with each woman, assessing her risk of breast cancer, and developing an individualized prevention and screening plan. To learn more, call the office in Paris, Texas, or schedule an appointment online.

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