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What Women Need To Know About Breast Cancer

October is breast cancer awareness month!

Breast Cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the US and all women have a 1 in 8 lifetime risk of developing breast cancer.  Although may seem quite scary, in reality there is some good news regarding this disease.  Currently, the 5 year survival in localized breast cancer is 98%; in contrast, in the 1940’s only 72% of women diagnosed with breast cancer survived 5 years.  Early detection has been one major factor in achieving this remarkably better prognosis.

As early detection is so important, it is vital that women understand what is available to help in finding breast cancer in its earliest stage.

First: Be aware of your own breasts!  Women should be aware of how their own breast normally look and feel and should report and changes to their doctor as soon as possible.

Some things to look for and pay attention to:

  1. A lump in the breast
  2. Dimpling of the breast
  3. Skin changes, including unusual redness or tenderness
  4. Spontaneous nipple discharge


Annual clinical breast exams by your doctor are recommended for every woman over the age of 40 and at least every 1-3 years for women age 20-39.

Mammograms are recommended every year for women over the age of 40; in some very isolated instances they could be spaced out to every 2 years, but not for a woman in her 40’s, when mammograms are most effective in the very earliest detection of breast cancer.

Other imaging modalities are sometimes used such as breast ultrasound and/or MRI if the mammogram is abnormal.  However, the only way to actually diagnose breast cancer is by a biopsy.

Although a 1 in 8 risk is certainly high enough, there are some women who are at an even higher risk.  These are women who have a strong family history of breast cancer, especially if they have a mother, sister or daughter affected.  These women may carry a gene that significantly increases their risk not only for breast cancer, but also for ovarian cancer.  These are the BRAC 1 & 2 genes. The BRAC 1 and BRAC 2 genes can be screened for with either a blood test or a mouth wash test.  Women’s Wellness’ strong commitment to women’s health has lead us to now offer counseling and testing for our patients as well as any family members that it is appropriate for.  As well as offering the actual test, we can provide recommendations based on the results for additional screening as appropriate as well as other preventative measures to lower your risk for developing breast and/or ovarian cancer.


Other than women with a family history of breast cancer with or without the BRAC gene, there are other groups of women who are at higher risk;

  1. Age over 65.  Incidence of breast cancer increases as women age.
  2. Puberty before the age of 12 or menopause after the age of 55
  3. Women who have never had a child
  4. Women who had their first child after the age of 30
  5. Obesity
  6. Ethnic: Black women have a higher rate of premenopausal breast cancer


There is good news however: there are some things that you can do to prevent breast cancer.

  1. Exercise regularly
  2. Control your weight (this can be very challenging as women enter menopause!)
  3. Eat a balanced and nutritional diet.  There are some specific nutritional strategies that Chelsea, our nutritional counselor, is very able to help with.
  4. Limit alcohol intake.  Consuming greater that 4 alcoholic beverages a week (on average) has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.  Yes even “red wine”.
  5. See your doctor annually
  6. If you are in the highest risk group, ask your doctor about medications that can either decrease or increase your risk of developing breast cancer.


Remember, being well informed and aware is the best defense!

Click here to take our online quiz to learn your risk.

Dr. Anne Rainville, MD, FACOG