- Early-stage breast cancer treatment is more manageable, less expensive, and results in better outcomes than later stage detection.
- A family history of cancer or BRCA gene mutations indicates a higher risk for breast cancer.
- Women ages 40 and up should follow the guidelines for annual screening tests from the American Cancer Society or American College of Radiology.
- A self-exam or clinical breast exam, while reassuring, isn’t as likely to contribute to early detection as regular mammograms.
Early detection of breast cancer could mean that care and treatment will be easier on you and less expensive.
Here’s why: When caught in an early stage, breast cancer is much easier to treat. That’s because early detection is more likely to catch tumors when they are small and haven’t yet spread, which often means a more optimistic prognosis.
In this article, we’ll dive into what breast cancer is, why early detection matters, how to detect breast cancer, and what factors increase your risk of developing breast cancer.
Understanding Breast Cancer
First, let’s discuss the components of breast cancer and how it spreads.
Ducts, lobules, and fatty or fibrous connective tissue are the three types of breast tissue.
Usually, breast cancers start in your breasts’ milk ducts or milk-producing lobules. Malignant tumors typically originate in one of these two types of breast tissues.
Oncologists and radiologists label breast cancer types as either in situ or invasive.
“In situ,” such as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), means cancer began in the milk ducts and hasn’t spread into surrounding breast tissue.
The term “invasive” means cancer has extended to other breast tissue. Invasive cancer may also reach your lymph nodes or blood vessels. From there, it may metastasize to other areas of your body such as your lungs, brain, or liver.
Malignant breast tissue lesions are cancerous. Their chief characteristic is uncontrolled and progressive growth.
Most people with advanced breast cancer must have surgery. Often, surgery is followed up with additional treatment such as chemotherapy, radiation, or hormone therapy. Sometimes, chemotherapy is used before surgery.
It can be paralyzing to even read about these treatments. However, one reason for hope is that these treatment options may be avoided with early detection of breast cancer.
Early Detection Can Improve Your Breast Cancer Survival Rate
Early detection and treatment can lead to better operative results, lower morbidity, less extensive tissue removal, and better rehabilitation.
The 10-year survival rate is best for small tumors without metastases.
The bottom line: Early-stage detection can help you stay healthy and so you can better enjoy your life and loved ones.
Early breast cancer detection also leads to better treatment strategies, which are most critical for improved survival rates and quality of life.
The best way to find early-stage breast cancer is to have regular breast imaging tests, such as a routine mammogram, breast ultrasound mammogram, breast MRI, or a combination of mammography and magnetic resonance imaging.
Screening mammograms are low-dose breast X-rays. They can help find early-stage cancer, which means treatment is likely to be more successful.
Note that because a mammogram may result in a false-positive, a follow-up with a breast MRI is important.
American Cancer Society (ACS) Screening Guidelines for Those With Average Risk
According to the ACS, you are at average risk for breast cancer if you don’t have a history of the disease, a genetic mutation such as in your BRCA gene, or a strong family history of breast cancer.
You’re also at an average risk of developing breast cancer if you hadn’t had chest radiation therapy before you were 30.
Some women who are at average risk or above-average risk should be screened regularly.
- Women ages 40-44 can begin screening mammograms.
- Women 45-54 should have annual mammograms.
- For ages 55+, women can either have a screening mammogram every other year or annually.
- Screening ought to continue while a woman is healthy and likely to live another 10 years.
Years of research have shown that regular breast cancer screening is more likely to find breast cancer early.
It’s also essential to know how your breasts look and feel so if you notice changes such as appearance, skin texture, lump developments, or others, you can tell your health care provider right away.
What Is My Risk of Developing Breast Cancer?
The American Cancer Society’s (ACS) estimates that roughly 13 percent of US women will get invasive breast cancer in their lifetimes. The ACS also estimates the lifetime risk (called average risk) of breast cancer deaths is 3 percent of American women.
Your breast cancer risk varies by age and race or ethnicity:
- Age: Cancer detection and death rates increase as you age. Half of the women diagnosed with breast cancer are 62 or younger, and women in their 70s are at the highest risk due to age.
- Race/ethnicity: Non-Hispanic white women have the highest cancer rate per 100,000 (131), and non-Hispanic black women follow closely (127). African American/Black women have the highest death rate per 100,000 (28), while Asian/Pacific Islanders have the lowest incidence and death rates.
Breast density is also a risk factor. Dense breasts have a lot of fibrous or glandular tissue and little fat. Women with dense breasts are at a higher risk of breast cancer.
Dense breast tissue also makes screening mammography harder to interpret. However, research has found that 3D mammogram finds more cancers than traditional 2D mammograms.
This is because 3D takes three-dimensional pictures by capturing low dose images of the breast from varying angles. As a result, the radiologist can see up to 300 pictures, as compared to just four from a regular 2D mammogram. This prevents cancers from being hidden by dense breast tissue.
A mammogram can show how dense your breasts are. If you have dense breasts, talk with your doctor about how it may impact your risk of breast cancer. There are many other factors to consider, including family history and hereditary risks.
Family History and the Hereditary Risks for Breast Cancer
Heredity may be a factor for 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases. This is because cancer may be linked directly to inherited gene mutations in the BRCA genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2.
In normal cells, these genes help repair damaged DNA. But mutations in the BRCA genes can result in abnormal cell growth and, ultimately, breast cancer.
Genetic testing can check for mutations. The test is simple and usually done with a blood sample, though saliva or tissue can be tested as well.
The risk increases the more close relatives you have with current or previous breast cancer.
ACS Guidelines for Higher Risk Individuals
According to the American Cancer Society, you are at a higher risk (20 to 25 percent) for breast cancer if you have:
- A strong family history of breast cancer
- BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation or close family with the mutation
- Had chest radiation therapy between the ages of 10 and 30 years old
- Li-Fraumeni, Cowden, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndromes, or immediate family who’ve had these syndromes
The American College of Radiology recommends screening at least once per year, beginning at age 40. But those who identify with the above risk factors should take special care with regular breast cancer screening.
We know these risk factors might cause you concern. But remember, early detection is breast cancer’s greatest weakness. Let’s discuss specifics below.
Routine Screening Is Readily Available
Early-stage breast cancer detection and treatment are more manageable, cheaper, and more effective. In some cases, they can also help prevent more severe treatments, such as a lumpectomy or mastectomy.
A routine screening program that includes a screening MRI or breast MRI can decrease the likelihood of false-positive results and lead to more conservative yet successful treatment of your breast cancer.
Positive screening results most likely lead to follow-up procedures, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or, on occasion, a breast biopsy.
Before making a plan for screenings, it’s important to know your risk. If you’re curious about your risk of breast or other types of cancer, you can take Ezra’s five-minute online assessment.
If you have a higher risk for breast cancer through family history, genetic factors, or other causes, follow the ACS or ACR guidelines for screening mammography and magnetic resonance imaging tests. Routine screening can improve your prognosis and treatment.