Breast Cancer Awareness Month Series with Augusta Health - Week 1: Prevention

Published: Oct. 6, 2021 at 7:23 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 6, 2021 at 10:38 AM EDT
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FISHERSVILLE, Va. (WHSV) - October is recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Research shows that breast cancer is the second most common cancer that affects women behind skin cancer.

Experts say women have a one in eight chance of having breast cancer.

When it comes to breast cancer prevention, Dr. Brandi Nicholson with Augusta Health stresses a few major points to keep in mind which include yearly exams, knowing your risk, and being aware of your body.

Dr. Nicholson says the most impact on decreasing death from breast cancer is made by starting breast screenings at 40 years old and doing so on a yearly basis.

“We have observed that women who do not come every year are at a higher risk of advanced breast cancer. It can be harder to treat, they may need more surgeries, more medical therapy than if we can find the cancers small and contained in the breast, by doing yearly exams,” Dr. Nicholson explained.

If you are considered high risk, then the age to start screenings might be earlier. Dr. Nicholson says the two most common risk factors for breast cancer are being a woman and age.

“Those are things that we cannot control. There are some lifestyle things that you can do to decrease your risk of breast cancer and that includes an active lifestyle, exercising, maintaining a normal healthy weight and eating a healthy diet. All of those are a small impact on our risks,” Dr. Nicholson said.

“Genetic risk is obviously very important. If you have a strong family history or in your family, there is a known genetic mutation that increases your risk, those patients are at a very personal high risk for getting breast cancer. Most cancers are sporadic meaning there isn’t any known risk factor,” Dr. Nicholson said. “We definitely want to encourage all women to be screened since most cancers are in women who have a typical family history and are not known to be at increased risk for cancer.”

People of color and members of the transgender community also have increased risks of breast cancer.

“We have learned that some of the genetic mutations are more likely carried in women of color, which puts them at risk for cancers before the age of 50,” Dr. Nicholson said. “Transgender men maintain their risk of cancer from their birth sex because they may still have their breast. If have they haven’t undergone a top surgery or mastectomy and still have their breast, their risk for cancer has not changed. We need to continue screening them until they have that surgery. Transgender females start having an elevated risk of breast cancer after five years of hormone therapy. At that time it is recommended they start coming for their yearly screening.”

Another increased risk for breast cancer includes having dense breasts.

“Density relates to the proportion of glandular tissue to the fatty tissue in our breast and half the women that we image are considered dense,” Dr. Nicolson said. “When you have dense breasts, you have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. The sensitivity or ability of a mammogram to find cancer is decreased as your breast density increases.” Dr. Nicholson said.

The technology for breast screenings has evolved over the years. Augusta Health offers several exams that are able to detect cancer at various stages.

“Studies have shown that by doing ultrasounds on a yearly basis we can find more cancer, about three to four in every one thousand women, even higher than the 3D mammograms offer,” Dr. Nicholson said.

Whether average or increased risk, Dr. Nicholson says that it is important to be aware of your body and watch for lasting change.

“Our breasts fluctuate a lot, especially with our cycles. I think that is a good measurement to use especially if you notice something to see if it goes away after a cycle because a lot of things are hormonal,” Dr. Nicholson explained. “The most important thing is really just the screening. For younger women, I think it is important to know their family history, talk with their doctor about things that may increase their risk versus them being of normal risk. If someone is of increased risk they may need to start screening before the age of 40 and they may even need to consider a breast MRI, which is another test we use for women who are high risk. If you are not high risk then a screening mammogram starting at 40 is the best way to detect breast cancer,” Dr. Nicholson said.

For more information on breast cancer prevention and treatment at Augusta Health, click here.

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