While regular screenings for breast cancer will not reduce the risk for or prevent cancer, they do help find it at an earlier stage when it is most treatable.
The recommendations for when to begin routine mammograms vary. Beginning at age 50, women of average risk should have a mammogram every one to two years. Women with average risk between the ages of 40 and 49 may elect to have a mammogram after discussing it with their physician. Any woman found to be at increased risk for breast cancer may be recommended to have earlier and more frequent breast cancer screenings.
If you have a family history of breast cancer, you may be recommended to get screened when you are 10 years younger than the youngest affected family member’s age at diagnosis, but not younger than age 30. If your lifetime risk of breast cancer is found to be at least 20 percent, then an annual breast MRI is also recommended, starting at 10 years before the youngest family member’s age at diagnosis, but not before age 25.
No matter your risk, you should have an annual breast exam and do monthly self-exams and report any changes in your breasts to your physician.
Women found to be at increased risk for breast cancer might choose to take medications to improve their chances of staying cancer-free. This is known as chemoprevention. Drugs like anti-estrogen medications can help inhibit cancers that are sensitive to estrogen. Taking these drugs for five years or more can reduce your risk by half.
Women found to be at high risk for breast cancer and who have a known genetic mutation that increases their risk for breast cancer may choose to have surgery before ever being diagnosed with the disease. This is a deeply personal decision.
A bilateral mastectomy, in which tissue is removed from both breasts, lowers the chances of breast cancer by more than 90 percent. Women who choose this surgery might also consider breast reconstruction surgery. A bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, in which the ovaries and fallopian tubes are removed to reduce their risk of cancer, also slashes the risk for breast cancer by half.
Understanding and managing the risk for breast cancer is complicated, and each woman’s background is unique. Remember that family history is just one piece of the puzzle. By maintaining a healthy lifestyle, getting regular screenings, and paying attention to your breast health, you should be able to give yourself the best possible chance of staying cancer-free.
To find out how genetics can affect your risk for breast cancer, click here.