Take steps to decrease risk of breast cancer

Your Health Matters

As October ends with the traditional donning of costumes, we are taking the mask off breast cancer to reveal it for what it is — a treatable, sometimes avoidable disease where lifesaving medical advancements have dramatically increased the likelihood of a positive outcome.

Ann-Marie N. Hugh, M.D., FACS, medical director for the Meritus Center for Breast Health, helps hundreds of women each year manage, treat and recover from breast cancer.

To decrease the risk of breast cancer, Hugh recommends women adopt healthy lifestyles and avoid certain activities that are proven to cause cancer. These include smoking and drinking more than one alcoholic beverage per day.

“Men should embrace these preventative actions as well, since they can get breast cancer, too, although the risk is much smaller,” Hugh said.

It is important for women to maintain a healthy weight, particularly after menopause, she said. The majority of women with breast cancer are ages 50 and older.

Breast cancer is highly influenced by estrogen levels, especially long periods of uninterrupted exposure seen in patients who experience menstruation for the first time at a young age and those having a late menopause. Not having children increases risk.

Similarly, not breastfeeding increases risk, since pregnant and lactating women have a long stretch of time when their menstrual cycle is interrupted.

Studies have shown that for every 12 months of breastfeeding — either with one child or spread over multiple children — the risk of breast cancer decreases when compared to women who didn’t breastfeed at all.

Menopause and risk

To relieve common menopause symptoms such as hot flashes, bone density loss and vaginal dryness, some women look to hormonal-replacement therapy. Hugh suggests patients avoid hormonal-replacement therapy whenever possible or use the lowest dose for a short time.

“Hormonal-replacement therapy, especially estrogen and progesterone combination treatments, increases your chances of breast cancer,” she said.

Regular self-checks are key

Between wellness visits and mammograms, women should self-check their breasts often to make sure all is well.

There are two positions to self-check — standing up while facing a mirror, and lying down on your back.

When standing, look in the mirror and evaluate your breasts for any skin rashes, irregular bulges or dimples and/or inverted nipples.

When you lay down to self-check, rest on your back and use light and firm pressure to feel for lumps or unusual changes within your breast tissue.

“Breast cancer usually presents as painless unless it’s advanced, so it’s very important for patients to perform self-exams,” Hugh said.

If you feel something in your breast, have it checked right away. Delaying diagnosis and, if necessary, treatment, could allow the cancer to spread and become more advanced.

Stages of breast cancer

There are five stages of breast cancer:

Stage Zero: Noninvasive cancer that has not spread from the duct.

Stage One: Cancer has broken from the wall, duct or lobule, but is smaller than 2 centimeters and has not spread from the breast.

Stage Two: The cancer mass is smaller than 2 centimeters, but has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm or is 2 to 5 centimeters in size, but has not yet spread to any lymph nodes.

Stage Three: The cancer mass is greater than 5 centimeters and there is lymph-node extension or there is cancer detected in the internal mammary lymph node, skin or chest wall.

Stage Four: Cancer has spread from the breast to other parts of the body such as the brain, bone, liver or lungs.

Mortality from breast cancer is decreasing because physicians have better treatment options to offer than in the past.

Hugh encourages patients not to compare their own diagnosis and treatment plan to the experiences of others.

“We are better able to manage side effects now from surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and the chances of recovery are greater now than ever before,” she said.