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Take control: Breast Cancer Prevention and Screening Are in Your Hands

edmistonKirsten K. Edmiston, MD, is board certified in surgery, specializing in breast cancer and breast surgery. She is a member of the Inova Breast Care Center. Read Dr. Edmiston’s profile.

What does October mean to you? To me, Breast Cancer Awareness Month offers an extra reason to tune into your health and spend some time focusing on body awareness. That awareness can help you live a longer, healthier life.

How to Be Body-Aware

It’s important to know what your breasts feel like, so you can be on the lookout for any changes. Talk to your doctor if you notice changes, such as:

  • A mass or lump in the breast or under the arm
  • An area of thicker, denser tissue
  • Red or thickened skin
  • Bloody nipple discharge
  • Retraction of the nipple

shutterstock_130569779Mammograms: What’s the Scoop?

Screening for breast cancer can save lives because it identifies signs of cancer early, when it’s most treatable. For women of average risk, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening mammograms every other year between the ages of 50 and 75. For women 40 to 49, it’s an individual choice. Women in this age group should talk to their doctors about their personal benefits versus risks from mammograms.

In contrast, the American Cancer Society recommends that women 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms. Women between the ages of 45 to 54 have yearly mammograms, while women over 55 can consider switching to mammograms every other year or continue yearly screenings as long as they are in good health and expect to live at least 10 more years. In my practice, I encourage women to first understand their risks. I then encourage women of average risk to obtain a yearly screening mammogram starting at age 40 and then to continue as long as they are in good health and expected to live at least 10 more years.

For women at increased risk, it’s important to talk to your doctor to determine the best screening recommendations for your situation. But you may be wondering: How do I know if I’m high risk? Factors such as a family history of breast cancer, previous biopsies that show abnormal cells and dense breast tissue can increase your risk. Your doctor can also give you a survey that calculates your risk and explains how it compares to other women’s risk of breast cancer. Or, you can use the online Inova Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool.

Healthy Choices

Early detection isn’t the only way to protect yourself. You can make lifestyle choices that have been proven to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. Factors that can lower your risk include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight. Overweight and obesity increase the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
  • Exercising regularly. Women who exercise 20 minutes per day or 4 hours per week have a lower risk of breast cancer.
  • Limiting alcohol. The more you drink, the more your risk increases.
  • Weighing pros and cons of hormones. Some types of birth control pills can raise breast cancer risk. And some types of hormone replacement therapies, which are used to treat symptoms of menopause, can also increase risk.
  • Limiting exposure to X-rays. When possible, avoid the radiation from X-rays that aren’t medically necessary. That said, the amount of radiation in a typical mammogram is quite low, and for most women, the benefits of regular mammograms outweigh any risk.
  • Getting 3-D mammograms. This new technology gives us a much better view of the breast tissue than traditional 2-dimensional mammograms do.

Breast cancer can be frightening, but it helps to know that some of your risk is in your control. You can make choices that lower it and work with your doctor to catch any problems early. To learn more, read about the Inova Breast Cancer Program.

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