As Breast Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close, it’s a good time to check in on just how aware we really are. Nicole Seagriff, a 27-year-old breast cancer survivor, recently shared her story with LadyLux, and has a message for women young and old: “There is no greater advocate than yourself when it comes to your healthcare.” She explains, “You’re the first line of defense. You’re with your body every day. You’re with your healthcare provider sometimes once a year and that’s it.” It’s important to trust your gut and speak up to your healthcare provider when you have concerns. With this in mind, here are the standard screening guidelines that it never hurts to brush up on.
For those with no family history or other overt risk of cancer, yearly mammograms are recommended starting at age 40. Clinical breast exams are recommended as part of a yearly check-up starting at age 20. According to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, CBE’s can be provided by a physician, nurse practitioner or any other healthcare provider trained in the technique.
While many of us grew up with our OBGYN’s encouraging frequent breast self-exams, recent studies have found that this practice does not lower risk of breast cancer mortality, and it is not officially recommended. Yet, every cancer authority stresses the importance of knowing your own body and watching for changes. If self-exams help to facilitate this, then many healthcare providers, including Seagriff, see no harm in it.
Of course, women with an elevated risk of cancer must take extra precautions. Those with strong patterns of breast or ovarian cancer in their families, or those with a family history of cancer at a very young age, may want to go for genetic testing. Seagriff, who “wakes up every day grateful for genetic testing,” notes that it was a major factor in helping her catch her cancer early. Essentially, the process can tell you if you have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations, a strong indicator of breast cancer.
If you find that are you a carrier of these genes, the recommendation is to receive a clinical breast exam every year until age 25. After age 25, women should receive a clinical breast exam every 6 to 12 months, with annual mammograms and MRIs.
If you don’t know your genetic status, but have a strong family history with two or more first degree relatives (ie, parents, siblings, or children) diagnosed with the disease, you should receive a clinical breast exam every year until age 25 and every 6 to 12 months thereafter. Starting at age 25, you should also receive an MRI and mammogram every year starting at the age 5-10 years prior to the youngest breast cancer case in your family.
Other risk factors that require elevated screening include receiving radiation treatment between 10 and 30 years old, and having dense breast tissue.
Note that mammograms are not a perfect test and, especially for younger women with denser breast tissue, cannot always catch everything. MRIs provide more accurate results for younger age groups.
Despite the importance of genetic testing and family history, Seagriff also reported that most cases of breast cancer are, in fact, not genetic, but environmental. This means that all the classic health advice – eat a balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables, don’t smoke, limit alcohol consumption and maintain a healthy weight – are among the most important things you can do to limit your risk of cancer. Each of these habits has been linked with not only lower risks of cancer, but also lower risks of heart disease, diabetes and other major killers.
As more indicator genes are discovered, a more detailed picture of breast cancer risk will emerge. For now, keep healthy, know your risk, follow these guidelines and, most importantly, advocate for your health!