Breast Cancer – What You Should Know

Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women.  About 41,000 women and 450 men in the U.S. die each year from breast cancer.

Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms. Most women who are 50 to 74 years old should have a screening mammogram every two years. If you are 40 to 49 years old, or think you have a higher risk of breast cancer, ask your doctor when to have a screening mammogram.  Most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older, but breast cancer also affects younger women.

Some things may increase your risk. The main factors that influence your breast cancer risk are being a woman and getting older. Other risk factors include:

  • Changes in breast cancer-related genes (BRCA1 or BRCA2)
  • Having your first menstrual period before age 12
  • Never giving birth, or being older when your first child is born
  • Starting menopause after age 55
  • Taking hormones to replace missing estrogen and progesterone in menopause for more than five years
  • Taking oral contraceptives (birth control pills)
  • A personal history of breast cancer, dense breasts, or some other breast problems
  • A family history of breast cancer (parent, sibling, or child)
  • Getting radiation therapy to the breast or chest
  • Being overweight, especially after menopause

Symptoms of breast cancer can include:

  • New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
  • Any change in the size or shape of your breast
  • Pain in the breast

Remember that other conditions can cause these symptoms. If you have any signs that worry you, make sure to contact your health care provider right away.

Many factors over the course of a lifetime can influence your breast cancer risk.  You can’t change some factors, such as getting older or your family history, but you can help lower your risk of breast cancer by taking care of your health in the following ways:

  • Keep a healthy weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Don’t drink alcohol, or limit alcoholic drinks to no more than one per day
  • Avoid exposure to chemicals that can cause cancer
  • Limit exposure to radiation from medical imaging tests like x-rays, CT scans, and PET scans if not medically necessary
  • If you are taking or have been told to take hormone replacement therapy, ask your doctor about the risks and find out if it is right for you
  • Breastfeed, if possible

For more information about breast cancer screening and prevention, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

The St. Mary’s County Health Department helps eligible women receive screening services for breast cancer. For more information, visit our website or call 301-475-4330.