Breast cancer today is not what it was 20 years ago. Survival rates are climbing, thanks to greater awareness, early detection and advances in treatment. For roughly 200,000 Americans who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful.
The earlier breast cancer is found, the easier it is to treat. And mammograms, X-rays of the breast, can detect tumors before they are large enough to feel. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms beginning at age 40 for women at average risk.
What if you find a lump? First, don't panic. Eighty percent of breast lumps are not cancerous. Lumps often turn out to harmless cysts or tissue changes related to your menstrual cycle. But you should let your doctor know right away if you find anything unusual in your breast. If it is cancer, the earlier it's found the better. And if it's not, testing can give you peace of mind.
The odds of surviving breast cancer are strongly tied to how early it is found. According to the American Cancer Society, 88% of women with Stage 1 breast cancer live at least five years, compared with women who don't have cancer – and many women in this group remain cancer-free for good. The more advanced the cancer, the lower this figure becomes. By Stage 4, the five-year relative survival rate declines to 15%. But these rates can improve as more effective treatments are found.
The most obvious risk factor for breast cancer is being a woman. Men get the disease, too, but it is about 100 times more common in women. Other top risk factors include being over age 55 or having a close relative who has had the disease. But keep in mind that up to 80% of women with breast cancer have no family history of the illness.
Some women have a very high risk of breast cancer because they inherited changes in certain genes. The genes most commonly involved in breast cancer are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women with mutations in these genes have up to an 80% chance of getting breast cancer at some point in life. Other genes may be linked to breast cancer risk as well.
There are risk factions you can control. Being overweight, getting too little exercise and drinking more than one alcoholic beverage per day can raise the risk of developing breast cancer. Birth control pills and some forms of postmenopausal hormone therapy can also boost your risk. But the risk seems to go back to normal after these medications are stopped.