Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the United States (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers).  One in eight women will be diagnosed with this disease.  The two greatest risk factors for breast cancer are increasing age and being female.

In women with no other risk factors for breast cancer, such as family history, screening mammography starting at age 40 can decrease the mortality rate associated with this cancer. The goal for screening is to detect cancer early in an otherwise healthy woman having no symptoms.  Early detection avoids the need for more invasive treatments and improves the likelihood of survival.  Death resulting from breast cancer is declining in the United States because of early detection and treatment.

Mammography can begin at age 40 and continue annually through age 75.  The decision to stop screening should not be based on age alone and should be discussed with your doctor depending on your health status.  There are additional risk factors which may place a patient at a higher risk for breast cancer; therefore, increased frequency and method of screening may be necessary.

Starting at age 25, clinical breast examination (CBE) can be performed every 1-3 years in women without any symptoms of breast disease.  After age 40, women should have a clinical breast examination annually.  At any point, if a woman has breast symptoms, a clinical breast exam can be performed.  Women at higher risk for breast cancer may need more frequent exams.

Another important tool in breast cancer detection and prevention is breast self-awareness. Breast self-awareness is a woman’s recognition of the normal appearance and feel of her breasts.  Any changes such as tenderness, pain, nipple discharge, mass, redness or skin changes such as dimpling should prompt the woman to see her doctor.  This is of particular importance because over 50% of breast cancer cases in women over age 50 and 71% of cases in women under age 50 are discovered by the patient themselves.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.  I encourage all women to make an appointment with their physician to discuss breast cancer risk and recommendations for screening.

Andrea Marcum Vallejos, MD, is an obstetrician-gynecologist who maintains her clinical practice at Valley Health – A Woman’s Place in Huntington, W.Va.  Dr. Vallejos completed her medical degree and residency at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University.