Breast cancer is common. About 1 in 8 (13%) of all women will develop breast cancer at some point in their life. While most breast cancer is sporadic, about 5-10% of all people with breast cancer are born with a mutation in an important gene that can lead to an increased risk for certain cancers.
It’s important not to wait until you are 40 to start thinking about breast health. Take the time now to start thinking about the lifestyle choices you are making that can impact your entire life. If you have a history of breast cancer in your family, you should start with genetic testing as your recommendations may be different. And everyone with breast tissue should be aware of simple modifications that can be made to lower your lifetime cancer risk - including the food we eat and the toxins we are exposed to. It all matters.
Early detection is important when it comes to any cancer. Breast cancer can be screened in several ways. First, it’s important to know whether you are at risk or not. If you have a history of breast cancer in your family then you should consider genetic screening for cancer causing genes, including the BRCA gene. If you carry a gene putting you at increased risk, you should begin breast cancer screening at age thirty (or 10 years before your youngest relative was diagnosed). If you are at average risk, women between the ages of forty and forty-four have the option to begin screening with a mammogram yearly. Women between forty-five and fifty-four should get mammograms yearly, and women fifty-five and older can start switching to every other year. As far as self or clinical breast exams go, the most important thing is to be familiar with the way your breasts look and feel. If you ever notice a change, it’s important to see a provider right away.
While there is no way to prevent breast cancer completely, you can do things that will lower your risk. Maintaining a healthy weight and regular exercise both lower your risk of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week. Limiting or avoiding alcohol can also decrease your risk of breast cancer. Eating less processed food (including processed meat) and having a diet focused on whole foods like fruits and vegetables decreases your lifetime risk of all cancers. For those who are at high risk, genetic counseling, medications, or preventative surgery may be recommended.
My professional take on cancer is in the realm of helping preserve fertility. When women are diagnosed with cancer, certainly survival is goal number one. That said, we don’t want to lose out on the option of being a mom or completing your family if you are diagnosed with cancer.
Importantly, I don’t have a crystal ball when it comes to you and your future fertility. After standard chemotherapy for breast cancer, 20% of women will be in ovarian failure (menopause) and will never have periods again. If we don’t preserve your option to have children by freezing eggs or embryos prior to chemotherapy, then you may lose this chance at genetic parenthood. We also know that after chemotherapy, most women will have a significant drop on their ovarian reserve (number of eggs) even if they resume normal periods after treatment. This means that consideration of fertility preservation or earlier conception attempts are extremely important, as many chemo survivors will enter menopause 10+ years prior to the natural age.
Breast cancer will impact you, someone you love, someone you work with, or someone you care about. The more you know the more you can be prepared when the time comes.