With many organizations offering breast cancer screening recommendations, including the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), American Cancer Society (ACS), National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), American College of Radiology, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), the message to the public is ever-changing and oftentimes conflicting. Most of the contention surrounding these recommendations pivots on what age women without an identifiable increased risk for developing breast cancer should begin mammography. Is it age 40? age 45? age 50? If you are in this age bracket or approaching it, you should discuss with your provider the options for mammography screening and decide together which age is best-suited for you.
So, what should the twenty- and thirty-somethings know about breast cancer screening and awareness?
Breast cancer in this age group is rare but not absent; less than five percent of diagnosed breast cancer cases are in women under 40. There is no effective breast cancer screening tool for women under 40, as they often have denser breast tissue that prevents routine mammograms from being a useful. Here are three things you should know to be bosom-aware.
1. Know About Your Risk
At your annual well woman examination, talk to your provider about your risk of breast cancer based on your non-modifiable risk factors. These include aspects like race, age, and your family history of breast cancer and are beyond your control. Prior to your appointment, do some digging regarding your family’s past medical history of breast cancer. This information will be useful for your healthcare provider. Based on this information, your provider may recommend an earlier screening test, such a breast MRI or mammogram.
In addition to knowing what may increase your risk, it is also important to dispel what will not affect your risk. Don’t burn your bra or toss the hair dye yet—while these are common myths, they do not increase your breast cancer risk. You can see more about shutting down these rumors here, at Susan G. Komen.
2. Know Thyself
Breast self-awareness means knowing what is normal for your breasts. The more well-acquainted you are with the ladies, the more quickly you will be able to notice changes. Being aware of changes in in the size or shape of your breasts, changes in the skin like dimpling, nipple discharge, and lumps or hard knots in your breast tissue or under your arm is of critical importance. Research by Johns Hopkins Breast Center reveals forty-percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women noticing changes in their breast tissue, such as a lump. No change is too insignificant to tell your provider about.
3. Make healthy lifestyle choices.
While you cannot prevent breast cancer, we do know there are things individuals can do to reduce their risk of breast cancer. You can reduce your risk by living an active lifestyle and eating a balanced diet to maintain a healthy weight.
If you’re not a smoker, don’t start smoking! If you are a smoker, take steps toward quitting. Making this life change can be extremely difficult. There is support for you! Your healthcare team can provide counseling about medications that may increase your likelihood of effectively quitting. There are also groups on social media such as SmokeFreeUS or SmokeFreeWomen to aid in giving you the support you need.
Monitor your alcohol intake. Alcohol affects the way your body metabolizes estrogen. This increased estrogen level may in turn, increase the risk of breast cancer. While drinking low to moderate amounts of alcohol may lower the risk of heart disease, excessive drinking is harmful to your health. At your well woman examination, discuss with your healthcare provider the potential risks and benefits of low to moderate alcohol intake.
Ashlee Nicole Tillery, MD is completing her residency training in Obstetrics and Gynecology near Atlanta, Georgia. She obtained her Medical Doctorate from the Medical College of Georgia and is passionate about women’s health issues at home and abroad. The views and opinions contained within this article are not a substitute for in-person evaluation by a medical provider. This content is for general informational purposes only, and the views expressed here have no relation to those of any academic, hospital, practice, or other institution with which Ashlee Nicole is affiliated. You can follow Ashlee Nicole’s adventures at @ashleenicolemd.