Why It’s Important to Stay Aware of Your Breast Health

Written By: Women and Infants on March 17, 2021

Breast health awareness is a vital part of how you stay healthy. Breast cancer affects 1 in 8 U.S. women, a rate higher than any other cancer except lung cancer. Your breasts may also be affected by benign breast changes such as cysts or intraductal papillomas (wart-like growths near the nipples).

Most women experience some form of breast changes, and it's important to know your normal breasts and keep an eye on any changes and contact your health care provider.

Tips to Help You Monitor Your Breast Health

Here are some tips to help you stay on top of your breast health and be aware of things that may put it at risk.

Perform Regular Self-Exams

Regular self-exams increase your familiarity with your breasts and allow you to spot changes. It's important to do self-exams at the same stage of your menstrual cycle as some changes through your cycle are normal. Breast swelling and pain right before you start your period is fairly common.

There is some question as to whether self-exams are valuable, but most doctors continue to recommend them. Be aware that most of the time if you do find a change it is not cancer. It is far more likely that it is something hormone-related. You should only do self-exams once a month. Doing them too often can cause galactorrhea...that is to say it can stimulate your breasts to produce milk.

Get Your Mammogram As Recommended

Annual mammograms are recommended for most women starting at age 40 and strongly recommended at age 45. They are particularly important if a past mammogram shows dense breast tissue, which increases risk and makes it harder for the radiologist to see tumors (making more frequent screening more important).

Women 55 and older can drop to a schedule of every other year unless they have risk factors, but you should continue to get mammograms as long as you are in good health.

For women with a strong family history or a known BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, mammogram screening should start at the age of 30, and MRI screening is also recommended.

How to Better Understand Your Risks of Breast Cancer

There are some factors that can increase your chances of developing breast cancer, which includes:

  • Family history. Having a first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer doubles your risk. Having a male relative with breast cancer also increases the risk (breast cancer is rare in men). If you have a family history of breast cancer, consider having genetic testing to check for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which can increase your risk. Make sure your children (of both sexes) also consider testing.
  • Personal history. If you have had breast cancer once, you are much more likely to have it again, including in the other breast.
  • Ethnicity. White women are overall more likely to have breast cancer than African-American women...unless you're under 45, in which case it's more common in African-Americans. The risk is overall lower for Asian, Hispanic, and Native American women.
  • Height. Taller women tend to have a higher risk, for reasons unknown.
  • Having certain benign breast conditions, such as ductal hyperplasia.
  • Having dense breast tissue, which can be diagnosed during a mammogram.

Being aware of these various risk factors is important as it can help you determine whether you should seek extra screening such as a breast MRI.

How You Can Lower Your Risk

The CDC recommends that women take the following precautions to reduce their risk of breast cancer:

  • Exercise regularly and try to maintain a healthy weight
  • Limit consumption of alcohol
  • Breastfeed children if possible

Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy do increase your risk of breast cancer; however oral contraceptives lower your risk of ovarian cancer. If you are on birth control, talk to your doctor and consider annual mammograms even if you are otherwise at low risk.

Learn more about breast health or schedule a mammogram by contacting Women and Infants Hospital today for the highest quality care.

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