At Risk for Breast Cancer?

Getting older can put you at higher risk for certain illnesses and diseases. For example, the older you get, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer.

While breast cancer deaths are actually declining, the disease remains the most common cancer in women in the United States (other than some skin cancers).

Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer deaths among Hispanic women. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breast cancer is the second most common cause of death from cancer for women overall. Approximately 40,000 women die from breast cancer each year in the United States. On average, women are diagnosed with breast cancer around the age of 61.

Though less common, breast cancer can also be diagnosed in men. Approximately 400 men die from breast cancer annually in the United States. The risk for breast cancer increases in men as they get older as well. Men are usually diagnosed between the ages of 60 and 70.

Controlling Your Risk

Unfortunately, there is no foolproof means of preventing breast cancer. Scientists are still learning about the many factors that can impact a person’s risk of developing it. Some risk factors, such as whether you have a family history of breast cancer, cannot be changed. Neither can you do anything about getting older.

But there are other risk factors that you can manage. According to the CDC, taking the following steps can help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer (as well as generally improve your health):

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day.
  • Avoid being exposed to chemicals that are known to cause cancer, such as arsenic, benzene and asbestos. Arsenic and benzene are found in cigarette smoke. Benzene is found in gas fumes as well.
  • Limit exposure to radiation from tests such as X-rays, CT scans and PET scans, unless they are medically necessary.

Women who breastfed their children may be at lower risk of developing breast cancer. Hormone replacement therapy and birth control pills, however, have been shown to increase the risk for breast cancer, so be sure to discuss this risk with your healthcare provider.

Testing: How Often and at What Age?

The age a woman should start getting screening mammograms — and how often she should get them — has been under debate in recent years. The American Cancer Society recommends that women start getting annual screening mammograms at the age of 45, but the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women get them every two years, and only between the ages of 50 and 74 years.

The good news is that screening mammograms are almost always covered by insurance. The Affordable Care Act requires health insurance plans that went into effect after August 2012 to cover these tests, without any copay or deductible, once every 12 months for women age 40 and older. Medicare also covers annual screening mammograms at no charge.

A diagnostic mammogram is an X-ray that is done when any kind of abnormality is found in the breast, such as a lump, change in breast size or shape or discharge from the nipples. If you detect such changes through a self-exam, be sure to schedule this type of mammogram, regardless of how long it has been since your last screening.

Advances in Treatment

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, there are numerous ways to treat it, depending upon its stage. Early-stage cancers are most likely to be treated with surgery or radiation therapy, which targets just the tumor without affecting the rest of the body.

Other treatments — such as chemotherapy or hormone therapy — attack cells throughout the body and are used before and/or after surgery to try to prevent the cancer from spreading or coming back.

Targeted therapy drugs are a newer group of drugs that attack only cancer cells (unlike chemotherapy, which targets all rapidly dividing cells) that are undergoing specific changes. Targeted therapy drugs are designed to stop cancer cells from growing so the cancer does not spread. Sometimes these drugs, which have fewer side effects than chemotherapy, can also help other types of treatment work better.

Other drugs are now being used to strengthen bones that may be weakened by the spread of breast cancer, or to try to prevent breast cancer from spreading to the bones in the first place. These drugs, such as zoledronic acid, a bisphosphonate, may also help other treatments (such as hormone therapy or chemotherapy) work better.