I was 35 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t have a family history, so I figured I shouldn’t be too worried. After all, this was my third breast mass in ten years, and the first two were harmless lumps. Why would this one, found during my self-examination, be any different?
Turns out I was at risk for breast cancer and just didn’t know it. I have spent the past four years since my diagnosis educating others by sharing my story. I was young, active, had a healthy diet, and went to my gynecologist every year for a clinical breast exam and Pap test. How did I end up being part of the one in eight women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer? It is extremely important that you understand your risk for breast cancer.
I interviewed Breast Radiologist Dr Anjali Malik to get all the important information we need to know right now about our breasts and how to keep them healthy. For starters, we always preach that women need to know their risk for breast cancer, but what does that mean? How do we determine our risk for breast cancer, and once identified, what do we do about it?
Dr Malik explains that women have both “non-modifiable and modifiable risk factors for the development of breast cancer.” She wants us to understand both, because some risks cannot be changed, while others can. Plus, she wants women to know – early on – whether they need to be monitored for breast cancer before the age of forty. She shares that an “algorithmic calculation of formal risk” is possible – with the help of a qualified physician.
I know. Sometimes we just don’t want to know. What we don’t know can’t hurt us, can it? Wrong. Knowing our risk factor can actually be stimulating. Instead of waiting and seeing whether cancer chooses us or not, we can get to know our bodies, be proactive in getting exams and tests, do self-exams, and potentially engage in genetic testing not only. for our benefit, but also for the benefit of our birth parents. . Additionally, we can work on the modifiable risk factors that Dr Malik warned us about.
There are several risk factors for breast cancer. The first two, according to Dr. Malik, are getting older and being female all the time. She adds that it is a cisgender woman, a transgender man who went through puberty as a woman or a transgender man on hormones. One of the unchangeable factors that put a person at risk for breast cancer, she says, is a family history of premenopausal breast cancer, a known genetic mutation, a family history of male breast cancer. A black or Ashkenazi Jewish person, someone who has a “history of high doses of chest radiation,” began menstruation before age 12 or began menopause after age 55 is also more at risk.
Okay, I know it sounds scary, but there is some hope. There are three main modifiable risk factors for breast cancer. The first is to limit alcohol consumption. Another modifiable risk factor is weight. Dr Malik shares that “maintaining a healthy weight” reduces the risks. Finally, exercise can reduce risk. Dr. Malik shares that the American Cancer Society advocates “150 minutes per week of moderate to intense exercise.” Interestingly, these three factors play into each other. Less alcohol, keeping our weight under control, and getting exercise all have many health benefits, including reducing the risk of breast cancer.
Although oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy are popular, Dr. Malik stresses the importance of discussing this with your doctor. Of course, there are advantages, but “they should be weighed against your level of personal risk”. This is another modifiable risk factor that a patient can deal with.
I asked Dr Malik about the modifiable factors – lifestyle changes – that are recommended. Do they really make a difference in our risk for breast cancer? She shares: “I think all of these changes would affect more than the risk of breast cancer! Since we are all at least 1/8 risk, I think it’s important to take all steps to reduce our risk. “
What if you found out that your risk is higher than the average woman? What are you supposed to do? Dr Malik wants you to talk to your doctor about it. Also know that “75% of people who develop breast cancer have no family history and that only 5 to 15% of breast cancers are genetic.” Most women who develop breast cancer, she notes, do not not have a genetic component.
As a mother of four adoptees, I wanted to know what adoptees or those who have only one biological parent in the photo are supposed to do to find out their risk. After all, many people don’t have information about all or part of their biological family. Dr. Malik refers these people to a genetic counselor who can help the person determine if genetic testing is the right way for them. She also recommends contacting agencies that assisted with the egg, sperm, embryo donation, or adoption to see if medical records can be obtained.
If you are at high risk of developing breast cancer, there are options. Dr. Malik encourages “earlier screening protocols, more frequent screening or the use of MRI in addition to mammograms, and if genetics warrant, early family planning and fertility preservation through freezing ova ”.
As a double breast cancer survivor, I often tell others that early detection really saves lives. Dr Malik agrees. “I once had a patient who reconnected with her biological family and discovered a strong family history of breast cancer. This patient underwent genetic testing, found out she had a genetic mutation and had an MRI. The results? She learned that she had very small breast cancer at an early stage. By taking a proactive approach to her health, the patient was saved. “We want to empower you to take action, not anxiety,” says Dr Malik.
Certainly, it seems that some patients, like me, just shouldn’t have breast cancer. Yet the reality is that I have had it – twice – and breast cancer is discouragingly frequent in women. However, as we learn more and more about what causes cancer and what redeems us from it, I am grateful to modern medicine and hard-working medical professionals like Dr. Malik. Knowing your risk, staying in touch with your doctor, and getting checked out can save your life.