5 things you may not know about breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Luckily, with better screenings, early detection, increased awareness and improved treatment options, many types of breast cancer may be curable — especially with early detection. In fact, there are 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.

Infographic: Stats on breast cancer


As we recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, Senior Medical Director of Oncology and Genetics at UnitedHealthcare, Dr. Jennifer Malin, shares five facts you may not know about detecting and preventing breast cancer.

  1. Early diagnosis may be a game changer.
    On average, the five-year breast cancer survival rate is 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,” Malin said.
  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, Dr. Malin said, which is why mammography is so important.

    The test may 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. 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.
  4. 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, Dr. Malin advises seeking evaluation.

    “It most likely won’t be cancer,” she said. “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.
  5. A healthy lifestyle can make a difference.
    “The most important way to prevent breast cancer is by exercising and maintaining a healthy weight,” Malin said. “The more fat tissue we have, the more estrogen our bodies make.” Some forms of breast cancer “feed” on estrogen.

    The American Cancer Society recommends 2.5 hours of physical activity each week to help lower the risk of cancer.

    In addition to exercise, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends new dietary guidelines. These include limiting alcohol, reducing added sugar consumption and eating a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Staying on top of annual exams and openly communicating any concerns with your doctor may help reduce your risk of breast cancer or help with early detection. For more information about breast cancer, visit cancer.org.