One in eight American women will get a breast cancer diagnosis at some point in her lifetime. The prospect of developing it can be chilling, and those who are diagnosed face difficult questions. Will I need surgery? What about chemotherapy and radiation? How will the disease affect my family?
As Senior Medical Director of Oncology and Genetics at UnitedHealthcare, Dr. Jennifer Malin is familiar with the fear that can accompany a new breast cancer diagnosis. She says what many women don’t know, however, is that most types of breast cancer are curable.
As we recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, Malin shares six facts you may not know about detecting and preventing breast cancer.
1. Early diagnosis is a game changer.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the five-year breast cancer survival rate in the late 1970s was about 75 percent. Today, it’s more than 90 percent. For patients diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, the five-year survival rate is close to 100 percent.
“It’s important to get diagnosed early, because the earlier you’re diagnosed, the less intensive treatment will be, and the greater the chance of a cure,” says Malin.
2. Mammograms matter.
Roughly half of all women who get screening mammograms will have a false positive result in a 10-year period.
That doesn’t mean you should skip the test. Most breast cancer is detected by mammogram before symptoms appear, says Malin, which is why mammography is so important.
The test can detect breast irregularities that can be further examined with techniques such as a biopsy to help determine a cancer diagnosis.
Talk with your doctor to determine what kind of screening plan works best for you given your health, age and family history of breast cancer.
3. Breast biopsies and surgery don’t spread cancer.
For some patients, a misconception is keeping them from getting screened. Malin said she’s had patients who mistakenly believe that biopsy and surgery procedures will cause breast cancer cells to spread in the body. This false belief means they may not be benefiting from life-saving early detection.
4. Most breast cancer isn’t hereditary.
Only 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancers are caused by genetic factors, such as gene mutations that significantly increase a person’s chance of developing breast and other cancers during their lifetime. Ask your doctor whether genetic testing makes sense for you.
5. Breast changes are normal, but don’t ignore symptoms that persist.
Breasts come in all shapes and sizes, and they can change based on a woman’s age, menstrual cycle and other factors. Breast lumps, rashes and discharge are common, and these things don’t necessarily mean you have cancer. If you notice changes to your breast that persist, Malin advises seeking evaluation. “It most likely won’t be cancer,” she says. “Don’t be so scared that you avoid getting it evaluated. And, if the symptom persists after an initial course of treatment, such as an antibiotic or cream, make sure you follow up with your doctor or see a specialist.”
Rarer symptoms such as bloody nipple discharge or hard lumps in the breast or under the armpit should be checked out right away.
6. A healthy lifestyle can make a difference.
“The most important way to prevent breast cancer is by exercising and maintaining a healthy weight,” says Malin. “The more fat tissue we have, the more estrogen our bodies make,” she says. Some forms of breast cancer “feed” on estrogen.
The bottom line: There are specific actions you can take to help reduce your risk of breast cancer or catch it before it becomes a more significant health risk.