Breast Cancer Symptoms, Screenings and Risk Factors

It’s likely that you or someone you know has a personal connection to breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. That number includes those still being treated and those who have completed treatment. While that statistic may be shocking, it emphasizes the importance of early detection through routine screenings.

Symptoms and Risk Factors

Most women with breast cancer will not have any signs or symptoms when diagnosed. In these instances, an abnormality is detected on a screening mammogram. Other times, women may find a lump in their breasts during self-examination or accidentally during bathing. Lumps are often painless and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as nipple discharge, a sensation of fullness in the breast or a change in the way the breast looks. In rare instances, breast cancer may be identified after a woman presents with fullness, a mass or discomfort in the underarm area. It is important to note that not all breast lumps will be cancerous. It is best to consult a physician if any noticeable changes have occurred.

Some risk factors for breast cancer are modifiable, while others are not. Age is the biggest risk factor, as most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50. Other non-modifiable risk factors include family history in a first-degree relative, dense breast tissue on imaging, reproductive history and genetic mutations on specific genes.

There are plenty of things one can do to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. It is recommended that women exercise regularly, avoid excessive alcohol consumption and maintain a healthy BMI after menopause. The most common demographic to be diagnosed with breast cancer is postmenopausal women.

Screening Is Key

Mammograms are the single most important test that can be done to detect changes in the breast at the earliest stages. These changes can indicate underlying cancer or a benign but high-risk finding that can alert the physician that there may be a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer in the future. Mammograms are compared year to year to help detect changes in the breast tissue over time. These changes can also help to indicate underlying problems. Mammograms should be done annually, beginning at age 40 for women at average risk of breast cancer. Those with a higher risk may need screenings more frequently.

In addition to a mammogram, breast self-examinations can be performed in the shower when the skin may be smoother and, therefore, masses may be easier to feel. The standard recommendation is that breast self-examinations are to be performed monthly. It is also recommended that women look at their breasts in the mirror regularly while standing with hands on hips and extending arms overhead. One should note the contour of the breasts, how the nipples look and if there is any retraction in the skin or nipples. The most important thing is to identify what one’s “normal” is and note any changes from how things normally look and feel.

Jessica Burns, MD, is a fellowship-trained surgeon with ProMedica Physicians Breast Surgery. Learn more about breast cancer screenings, diagnosis and treatments at ProMedica.