When was the last time you talked with your loved ones about your family’s health history? These conversations are crucial to your health, as well as the health of your family members who need to know their own background. Getting the information can help guide all of us to take preventive measures that we might not otherwise consider. A family history of breast cancer – specifically a first-degree relative (mother, sister or daughter) — approximately doubles a woman’s risk of developing the disease. Every October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I encourage you to speak with your family about your collective health history. If you are at heightened risk for breast (or any) cancer, ask your health care professional about proactive cancer prevention steps and screening measures that apply to you.
Don’t stop at just learning about your family health history. Take action. Encourage your family members to act as needed. Encourage your friends to follow your lead. You can be a powerful motivator to protect your loved ones and promote their health and well-being.
However, even if you do not have a family history of breast cancer, you are still at risk. It is expected this year that 232,670 women will be diagnosed and 40,000 women will die this year from breast cancer in the United States. In Iowa alone, 2,320 women are expected to be diagnosed and 390 are expected to die this year from breast cancer.
While every man and woman is at risk for breast cancer, some are at higher risk. Risk factors include a family history of breast cancer, inherited abnormal genes, a previous diagnosis of cancer in one breast, a sedentary lifestyle, and men and women over 40 years old.
Although this information is troubling, there is good news. You can reduce your risk and take steps to stop cancer before it starts. If you are reading this, you are taking a step toward prevention because awareness is a great start. Making healthy living decisions each day can do a lot to prevent a variety of cancers. Exercise regularly. Eat a balanced and nutritious diet. Drink alcohol in moderation and don’t smoke, or stop if you do.
There are many proactive measures women can take toward detecting breast cancer, including:
Breast Self-Exam (BSE): Every woman should perform a monthly examination of her breasts to check for physical changes. If you are unsure of how to perform a breast self-exam, ask your health care provider to demonstrate and explain the ideal time to conduct one. It is very important for women to become familiar with their breasts and understand what feels normal. Start early, beginning at age 20.
Clinical Breast Exam (CBE): Be sure to ask your health care provider to give you a clinical breast exam each year. The exam consists of checking the breasts for any changes, lumps, or other possible warning signs of breast cancer through physical touch and appearance. You should begin having clinical breast exams in your 20s and 30s.
Mammography: By the age of 40, all women should have a mammogram, and it is important to talk to your health care provider about how often the test should be performed. The mammogram is an “x-ray” of the breast and is the most effective method of detecting breast changes that may be cancer, long before physical symptoms can be seen or felt. Approximately 67 percent of women over 40 years old have had a mammogram in the last two years. Mark your birthday and don’t skip your next mammogram.
Be a leader for your family. Share your cancer knowledge and what you do to prevent breast cancer. If you would like additional information on cancer prevention, please visit www.preventcancer.org.