Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women. Around 1 in 10 women has a lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Approximately 80% of all breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women above the age of 50. Although very few cases of breast cancer occur in women in their teens or early 20s, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women aged under 39. However, the number of men who are diagnosed with breast cancer is rare ; it only accounts for less than 1% of cancer cases.
The incidence of breast cancer in women has been on the rise for many years in economically developed regions of the world : the rates in the Far East, which have historically been comparatively low, are now rising rapidly. This increase in incidence rates has been linked to lifestyle change, such as reproductive behaviour, weight gain, alcohol consumption and the use of HRT( Hormone Replacement Therapy ). Accordingly, in populations of women who migrate from low-to high- risk countries breast cancer rates typically increase rapidly to reach those of the local population, suggesting a strong effect for lifestyle or environmental factors.
Breast cancer is associated with several risk factors:
A woman in her twenties has a breast cancer risk of 1: 2000, while it is 1:40 for a woman in her 50’s.
Having a mother or sister diagnosed with breast cancer approximately doubles the risk of breast cancer. But more than 8 out of 10 women who have a close relative with breast cancer will never develop it.
Breast Cancer Genes
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are strongly associated with breast and ovarian cancers. A woman with either of these genes has up 90% chance of getting breast cancer by the age of 80.
Women who have children have a slightly lower risk of breast cancer than women who don’t have children.
Starting periods (menarche) at an early age has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. A late menopause also increases breast cancer risk.
Drinking alcohol has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer. To be on the safer side, it is recommended that women avoid more than 14 units of alcohol per week.
Let’s bust some of the most common myths related to breast cancer now!
A lot of effort has been put into raising breast cancer awareness. However, there are still a lot of misconceptions with regards to breast cancer. Here are some of the common myths.
Myth: If you’re at risk of developing breast cancer, there’s little you can do but watch for the signs.
Reality: There’s a lot that women can do to lower their risk, including losing weight if they’re obese, getting regular exercise, lowering or eliminating alcohol consumption, being rigorous about examining their own breasts, and having regular clinical exams and mammograms. Some high-risk women also choose to have a prophylactic mastectomy to decrease their risk by roughly 90%. They can take other proactive steps such as having regular MRIs, exploring chemoprevention with treatments such as tamoxifen, and participating in clinical trials.
Myth: Annual mammograms expose you to so much radiation that they increase your risk of cancer.
Reality: While it’s true that radiation is used in mammography, the amount is so small that any associated risks are tiny when compared to the huge preventive benefits reaped from the test. Mammograms can detect lumps well before they can be felt or otherwise noticed, and the earlier that lumps are caught, the better one’s chances for survival. The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 40 and older receive a screening mammogram every one to two years.
Myth: If your mammography report is negative, there is nothing else to worry about.
Reality: Despite their importance for breast cancer screening and diagnosis, mammograms fail to detect around 10% to 20% of breast cancers. This is why clinical breast exams and, to some extent, breast self-exams are crucial pieces of the screening process.
This article has been contributed by Dr Lo Soo Kien, Sue. Dr Lo is a senior medical oncologist, with a special interest in breast, gastrointestinal and gynaecological cancers. She looks after patients at the oncology unit of The Harley Street Clinic Heart and Cancer Centre. To book an appointment with Dr Lo, click here!