According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the U.S, making breast cancer the second-most-common cancer among American women, after skin cancer.
Despite those gloomy statistics, there are strategies women can use to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages.
“It is important to detect breast cancer early because survival and recurrence are stage dependent,” says Dr. Michael Sapozink, a radiation oncologist at Southwest Oncology Centers.
Arizonan physicians seem to agree that there are no reliable ways to prevent breast cancer from developing. However, there are several methods doctors recommend for detecting breast cancer early.
One breast cancer detection method doctors recommend is self-examination. When self-examinations are started early in life and performed monthly, they provide a good knowledge base for what healthy breast tissue feels like. That way, if tissue becomes cancerous, women can feel the difference within their breasts and schedule an appointment with their doctor to check it out.
Women should perform self-examinations while they are menstruating, says Sapozink. Women should divide the breast they are examining into four quadrants for examination. While immobilizing the breast with one hand, women should use their other hand to slowly examine the breast, checking for any irregular-feeling tissue.
Mammograms are another method to detect breast cancer. Mammograms are images of the breast taken through X-rays, and can be a way to detect breast cancer much earlier than self-examinations. Generally, doctors recommend women get their first mammogram at age 40, and yearly after age 50.
Women who are deemed “high risk” for developing breast cancer may receive their first mammogram earlier in life, says Sapozink. Although there are no known causes of breast cancer, women who have a strong family history of breast cancer, who have undergone hormone replacement therapy, who had their first menstruation cycle later in life, or who are obese, may be at a higher risk for developing breast cancer.
Women who have had a strong family history of breast cancer may also opt to be screened for genetic mutations that are linked to breast cancer.
“Genetic mutations are responsible for a very small percentage of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, but up to 85 percent of patients with (the genetic mutation) will develop breast cancer,” says Dr. Linda Benaderet, an oncologist at Arizona Oncology.
If patients are found to have a genetic mutation linked to breast cancer, they can then speak with their doctors to set up a plan that outlines how often they should receive a mammogram.
Depending on the density of a woman’s breast, as well as what a mammogram is able to show, a patient may get an ultrasound or MRI as well as a mammogram to inspect the breasts more closely before a biopsy is taken to test suspicious tissue.
If a patient is diagnosed with breast cancer, the next step would be to visit an oncologist to discuss treatment options, says Benaderet. Treatment options include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, breast surgery or a mastectomy. Women should discuss their options with their doctor to find out which treatment, or combination of treatments, is best for them.