Common but Curable: Fast Facts About Breast Cancer

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.
Fortunately, this common cancer is also exceedingly treatable when caught early. This is why physicians encourage all women to start getting yearly mammograms at age 40. African-American women should be especially vigilant to begin screening mammograms at age 40 because they tend to get breast cancer younger, and sometimes have a more aggressive form of breast cancer that makes early detection especially important. All women who have a family history of breast cancer should begin screening 10 years before the age that their family member developed cancer.
Breast cancer treatment is best performed in a team-based approach. Surgeons work with oncologists, radiologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, plastic surgeons, genetic counselors and nurse coordinators to ensure patients get the best treatment for their specific type of cancer. Every patient should be discussed at a weekly meeting with all of these specialists who then make evidence-based recommendations for each patient. 

Understanding Breast Cancer Risks

There are many different variables that increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Some can be modified, but others are genetic. Some women with a family history of breast cancer may have a known genetic mutation, or abnormality in their genes, but many do not. For women who have close relatives with breast cancer, or are diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, a discussion with a genetic counselor can help to determine the need for genetic testing. However, most breast cancer is actually diagnosed in women who do not have a known genetic mutation. 

Other known risk factors for breast cancer include obesity, use of post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy, alcohol use and smoking. Breast cancer is often a hormonally-driven cancer, meaning that elevated levels of estrogen can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Women with obesity have higher levels of estrogen because of the fatty tissue’s ability to create estrogen, especially in post-menopausal women. Post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, is important and necessary in some women, but it is important to discuss the risks and benefits of HRT with your healthcare provider. Both alcohol and smoking increase the risk of breast cancer in a linear fashion, meaning that the more a woman drinks alcohol or smokes, the higher their risk of developing breast cancer. For smokers, this risk can persist even 20 years after quitting. A good place to start to quit is your primary care provider, who can prescribe medications and provide support to help you quit.

Special Concerns

Although breast cancer is more common as women get older, sometimes younger women in their 30s and 40s are affected as well. Such women face unique concerns, such as the desire for continued fertility, the ability to breastfeed in the future, and the preserved appearance of their breasts. The Huntsman-Intermountain Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Care Program recognizes these unique concerns and can provide a specially trained Patient Navigator to help young women address these concerns. Often, patients find these cancers during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, when elevated hormone levels cause the cancer to grow. When a breast mass is found during pregnancy or lactation, it is important to have a physician examine and image the mass to rule out cancer. Treatments for breast cancer, even during pregnancy, will take both the health of the mother and baby into account. 

Breast cancer is common, but is very treatable when diagnosed at an early stage. You can 801.507.7840 to schedule a mammogram screening, or ask your primary care provider to help you set one up. And always, if you have any concerns about something you’ve found in your breast, tell your doctor.