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Straight, No Chaser: The Reach of Breast Cancer and Your Risk Factors

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD August 11, 2020


Even as a physician, I am left to think about the horror of being a woman with a lifetime risk of acquiring breast cancer that’s 1 in 8. The only thing I can think of off-hand and relate to similarly is the risk for trauma being an inner-city minority kid. This risk of breast cancer is compounded by the reality that there is no way to prevent it. Thus, it must be emphasized early and often: risk factor identification and reduction, coupled with early evaluation, detection and treatment are absolutely vital.
Breast cancer is the second most common cancer contracted by American women (after skin cancer), and it is the second most common cause of death from cancer (after lung cancer). More than a quarter of a million new cases will be diagnosed in women yearly, and approximately 40,000 women will die from complications of breast cancer annually (that’s over 100 deaths every day).
In the event the previous information seemed like too much gloom and doom, understand that the tide has been stemmed. After more than two decades of increase, rates of new cases of breast cancer began dropping in 2000 and have stabilized.  This is largely thought to be due to declining rates of post-menopausal hormone use in response to results from major research projects. As you may know, such hormone use has been shown to increase the risk of both breast cancer and heart disease.
Speaking of risks, I don’t especially like this part of the conversation because it always comes across as if everything is a risk factor, and there are still controversies about what is or isn’t a risk. As a result, patients end up confused and paralyzed into inaction. Therefore, I’ll mention just enough for you to understand and work with; if you have specific questions on what you’ve heard that I haven’t already addressed in the breast cancer myth posts (Parts I and II), feel free to ask.
There are risk factors you can’t change, like aging, family history and being a woman. Having these risk factors simply means you need to be more diligent in performing self exams and seeking early care for suspicious findings.  Now, there are other risk factors you can minimize. Oral contraceptive use, postmenopausal hormonal therapy, choosing not to breast feed, alcohol use and obesity are all risk factors for breast cancer that are under your control.
The bottom line is your risk factors don’t cause cancer, and the absence of risk factors doesn’t ensure you won’t have breast cancer. For example, men contract breast cancer as well. What it all comes down to is you must be diligent in performing exams and getting evaluated and treated if something abnormal is discovered. We’ll discuss some of that next.
I welcome your questions and comments.
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