Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Breast Cancer: When Knowledge is Power

     Most women view breast cancer as their biggest health threat—even more than heart disease. The fact that one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime can cause anxiety.

     Cancer grows when a cell’s DNA is damaged. The cause could be genetic or environmental—or a combination of the two. While scientists continue to examine the exact cause of cancer, some established risk factors are associated with a woman’s risk for breast cancer.

Genetic risk factors

  • Gender. Breast cancer occurs nearly 100 times more often in women than in men.
  • Age. The older a woman, the more likely she will develop breast cancer. 
  • Race. The Ashkenazi Jewish heritage carries a higher prevalence of the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 breast cancer genes. 
  • Family history and genetic factors. A family history of breast, ovarian or pancreatic cancer increases the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the future as does the age of diagnosis. 
  • A personal history of breast cancer or abnormal cells such as, but not limited to, atypical hyperplasia.
  • Menstrual and reproductive history including: never having children or having a first child after age 35; younger age at first period (before age 12); older age at menopause (age 55 or older); a history of infertility treatment.
  • High breast density on a mammogram
  • An inherited mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 breast cancer genes
Environmental risk factors
  • Lack of exercise
  • Exposure to large amounts of radiation at a young age
  • Alcohol use (more than one drink of alcohol per day)
  • Being overweight or obese 
  • A poor diet
  • Long-term hormone replacement therapy
     Having a risk factor does not mean you will get breast cancer, but having little risk doesn’t mean you won’t be diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s important to discuss your risks with your primary care physician and schedule annual mammography after age 40.

     Since risk factors don’t tell us everything, your doctor may recommend a breast cancer risk assessment. A breast cancer risk assessment estimates a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer within her lifetime. Understanding your risk can help you develop a personal prevention plan with the hope to detect cancer at an early age.

      “The fight against breast cancer starts with each of us,” says nurse practitioner Kristy Hose, CRNP, of Meritus Health’s Center for Breast Health. “As women, we must understand our risk and be accountable for our screening.”

Where to go for assessment

Meritus Health’s Center for Breast Health’s risk assessment program offers women:
  • Counseling and education on breast cancer
  • Breast cancer risk assessment
  • A personalized screening and prevention plan
  • Support and access to other resources within the community
  • BRCA testing
  • Options for prevention and reducing cancer risk 
  • A referral for genetic counseling 
     With experience in family medicine and involvement in the Make a Difference breast cancer program providing education, counseling and cancer screening, Kristy brings compassion and knowledge to the role. Before conducting a risk assessment, she asks clients to gather as much information as they can about their personal and family health history. Most insurance plans cover risk assessment consultation.

     “Knowledge is power. The more women understand their risk, the better prepared they are in preventing the disease. With knowledge comes a peace of mind and a sense of control,” says Kristy.

     Depending upon a woman’s circumstances and her risk assessment, she may decide to increase the frequency of her breast cancer screenings, use more sophisticated mammography tools, pursue genetic testing or do nothing at all.

After a breast cancer diagnosis
     The risk assessment program also helps women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and want to understand their risk of a BRCA gene mutation and whether it may be passed on in a family. A risk assessment can also guide women when making medical or surgical decisions to reduce cancer risk.

Common sense steps
     Although you can’t change your genes, family history or age, you can make lifestyle changes to improve your odds of developing breast cancer. Limit your alcohol consumption, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly and don’t smoke. You should also perform monthly self-breast exams and keep up with annual mammograms.

     To find out more about high risk assessments, visit the Meritus Health Center for Breast Health online or call 301-665-4780.

Source: Susan G. Komen®

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