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Get the Facts: Who's at Risk for Breast Cancer?

Focused on Health - October 2009

By Adelina Espat

It’s true. Some women are more likely to get breast cancer than others are. However, regardless of your risks, living a healthy lifestyle and getting tested can help you beat this disease.

Your first step toward good breast health is to learn about your personal risk for breast cancer. Knowing what your personal chances are for getting the disease will tell your doctor what tests you should get, as well as when and how often you should get tested.

Let’s look at examples of women who are more likely to get breast cancer. Based on their profile, we’ll provide the right M. D. Anderson screening schedule to check for cancer. We’ll also look at some healthy habits that may reduce each woman’s chances of getting cancer. 

Sarah has a family history of breast cancer

Sarah is 29 years old and teaches kindergarten. She enjoys playing tennis on weekends with her boyfriend. Her grandmother died from breast cancer at age 40, and her aunt was recently diagnosed with the disease at age 39. Sarah’s doctor suggested she see a genetic counselor to learn more about her personal risk for the disease. After completing a questionnaire based on family history, Sarah learned that her chance of getting breast cancer was 20% -- a number considered higher than that of the average woman at any age.  

M. D. Anderson recommends that Sarah immediately begin to:

Health tip – Some studies show that taking oral contraceptives may increase a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer. Sarah should consider speaking with her doctor about oral contraceptive use and breast cancer risk at her next well-woman check-up.

Mary received radiation treatment to the chest as a young adult

Mary is 35 years old. On her last vacation, she traveled to Napa Valley for a wine tasting tour. Every night, she enjoys drinking two to three glasses of red wine with dinner. She was treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 27 but is now cancer-free. As part of her treatment, she received radiation to her chest.

M. D. Anderson recommends that Mary immediately begin to:

  • Have a mammogram every year
  • Have a clinical breast exam every six to 12 months
  • Practice breast awareness
  • Consider breast MRI once a year as an additional test

Health tip – Some studies show that women who have more than one alcoholic drink a day may have a higher chance of getting breast cancer. To play it safe, Mary should try to limit alcohol as much as possible. M. D. Anderson recommends that women not drink more than one eight-ounce glass of wine a day.

Nancy tested positive for the breast cancer gene

Nancy is 35 years old. Her mother was treated for breast cancer at age 40, so Nancy decided to get genetic testing. The test results confirmed that she has the BRCA 1 genetic mutation. Having a mutation in this gene increases her chances of getting breast cancer. To reduce her chances of getting the disease, Nancy had her ovaries removed and is now going through menopause. She is considering taking hormones to manage her symptoms.

M. D. Anderson recommends that Nancy immediately begin to:

  • Have a mammogram every six to 12 months
  • Have a clinical breast exam every six to 12 months
  • Practice breast awareness
  • Have a MRI once a year as an additional test

Health tip – Studies show that taking hormones may increase a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer. Because Nancy has tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene, she should speak with her doctor about other options for managing menopausal symptoms.

Patricia’s breast biopsy showed cell changes that increase her risk of breast cancer

Patricia is 30 years old and is married with two kids. She says that her biggest weakness is her sweet tooth – she loves cheesecake and eats a slice a day! A year ago, she was diagnosed with lobular carcinoma in situ, which increases her chances of developing breast cancer.

M. D. Anderson recommends that Patricia immediately begin to:

  • Have a mammogram every six to 12 months
  • Have a clinical breast exam every six to 12 months
  • Practice breast awareness

Health tip – Studies show being obese may increase a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer. A high fat diet can lead to weight gain. To improve her health, Patricia should consider healthier options, such as fruit, when she has a sugar craving. She also should speak with her doctor about medications shown to reduce a woman’s chances of breast cancer.

Karen’s chances of getting cancer in the next five years are higher than normal

Karen is 35 years old and recently joined a nearby gym to shed the extra 10 pounds she gained after giving birth to her twin girls. She read an interesting article about the Gail Model and breast cancer risk. At her last well-woman appointment, she asked her doctor to use the Gail Model to determine her personal risk for breast cancer. Her tests results showed that she had a 1.7% chance of getting breast cancer within the next five years. This number places her at an increased risk of getting breast cancer.

M. D. Anderson recommends that Karen immediately begin to:

  • Have a mammogram every year
  • Have a clinical breast exam every six to 12 months
  • Practice breast self awareness

Health tip – Studies show that lack of exercise may increase breast cancer risk. Karen, however, is on the right path to better health by going to the gym. Regular exercise is always a good step toward improving your overall health. Karen also should speak with her doctor about medications shown to reduce a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer.

Get your personalized screening plan

If any of these women sound like you, you may be at increased risk for breast cancer and need a more tailored screening plan to test for the disease. See M. D. Anderson-recommended screening guidelines for women at increased risk of breast cancer.

Remember, having one or more risks for breast cancer does not mean you will definitely get the disease. It means that you may be more likely to get breast cancer. Finding breast cancer early can save lives.

If you don’t fit the description of any of the women above, you may be at average risk for breast cancer. See M. D. Anderson’s screening recommendations for woman at average risk.

Related Links

Cancer Risk Factors: Breast Cancer (M. D. Anderson)

Cancer Screening Guidelines (M. D. Anderson)

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