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Early detection is an important defense against breast cancer

Posted on: 10/09/2019

by Rachel Raphael, M.D., F.A.C.S., general surgeon, Foothills Medical Group

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

We should take this month to understand the disease, its risks and symptoms. Statistics show a one in eight chance of a woman developing breast cancer, making it one of the most common cancers among women.

What is breast cancer? Any cancer generally starts when cells begin to grow out of control. With breast cancer, the cells can be from the milk producing cells, the cells of the ducts that carry the milk to the nipple or the surrounding connective tissue cells. Those bad cells can often be seen on an x-ray of the breast called a mammogram, or they can be found as a lump via a tactile inspection. If not detected early, cancer can spread and become deadly.

What causes breast cancer? Although anyone with breast tissue can get breast cancer, the primary risk factor for developing breast cancer is being female. Age is another risk factor as most breast cancer is found in women age 50 and over. Family history of breast cancer is also a risk factor, however less than 10 percent of women with breast cancer have family members with that history.

Risk factors that are modifiable include: 1) Being overweight or obese, especially after menopause. Having more fat tissue after menopause can raise estrogen levels which in turn increases your chances of getting breast cancer. 2) Lack of physical activity (the American Cancer Society recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate activity each week). 3) Alcohol consumption: women who drink 2-3 drinks a day have a 20 percent higher risk than non-drinkers. 4) Hormone levels: birth control use, hormone therapy after menopause, not having children, and not breastfeeding all increase your risk, due to changes in hormone levels.

What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer? Major indicators of possible breast cancer that you should be aware of are: new lump in the breasts or under arm, discharge from the nipple other than breast milk, pain in an area of the breast, swelling of the breast, changes in the skin of the breast including dimpling of the skin, flakiness or redness of the skin or thickening of the skin (texture similar to orange peel).

What can you do? Early detection and treatment are the best ways to prevent breast cancer from becoming deadly, as size and spread of cancer predict the outlook for patients. If one is at average risk for developing breast cancer, a yearly mammogram starting after age 40 is recommended.

There is no cure for breast cancer. While the medical community works toward that goal, our best defense is improved lifestyle choices and early detection.

Rachel Raphael is a general and breast surgeon with Foothills Medical Group. She currently practices at Olean General Hospital and will soon practice at Bradford Regional Medical Center.

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