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Breast Cancer Risks & Screenings: Important Regardless of Age

Breast cancer doesn’t care about age. The median age of a woman diagnosed with breast cancer is 62 and almost 20 percent of women diagnosed are over the age of 75, according to the National Library of Medicine. And, while men are also diagnosed with breast cancer, about 99 percent of people with breast cancer are women.

Your risk of breast cancer increases with age, but age isn’t the only risk factor. Other factors include:

  • Genetics—The American Cancer Society says 5-10 percent of all breast cancer cases are genetic. If your mother and/or sister had it you have a higher risk.
  • Previously had breast cancer—your risk is higher
  • Race—Caucasian and African American women are at higher risk
  • Dense breasts—dense breasts have more glandular and fibrous tissue than they do fatty tissue
  • Reproductive history—if you started your period before you were 12 years old or started menopause after age 55, your risk is higher

Those risk factors are things you have no control over and can’t change. But there are things you can do to decrease your risk of a breast cancer diagnosis; they’re many of the same things you can do to decrease your risk of just about any disease or condition.

  • Limit alcohol—two to three drinks a day can increase your risk of breast cancer by 20 percent
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get regular physical activity—150-300 minutes of moderate or 75-150 of intense activity each week (that’s about 30 minutes of moderate or 15 minutes of intense daily exercise)

Knowing your body and being aware of changes in it are the best ways to be proactive with your healthcare. If you experience any of these signs or symptoms you should contact your doctor:

  • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt)
  • Skin dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)
  • Red, dry, flaking, or thickened nipple/breast skin
  • Nipple discharge
  • Swollen lymph nodes (under the arm or around the collar bone)

Many women have none of these symptoms, which is why it’s important to have regular breast cancer screenings. The most common type of breast cancer screening is a mammogram. Here are the American Cancer Society’s recommendations for mammogram frequency:

  • 40-44—if you’re at average risk (no personal history, no previous breast cancer, no strong family history) the American Cancer Society recommends that you have the option to have a yearly mammogram
  • 45-54—you should get mammograms every year
  • 55 and older—you should discuss screening frequency with your provider based on your individual needs and risk factors.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer you likely have a lot of questions. The American Cancer Society has a helpful list of questions to ask your doctor about breast cancer and what’s next. Remember, treatment plans are based on several factors—type of breast cancer, stage, special situations, your overall health, and your personal preferences.

It’s always important to talk to your doctor after any diagnosis. You should be well informed about your options and have all questions answered, and concerns addressed. As an older adult, there are also other things to consider—like how will the standard of care and recommended treatment affect your quality of life? You and your family or caregivers need to clearly define the goals of treatment and discuss potential side effects.


Sources: American Cancer Society, American Society of Clinical Oncology Journal, Breast Cancer Research Foundation, U.S. National Library of Medicine

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