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October 2012: Breast Cancer Basics

30 Sep 2012

Dr. Suzanne Pham is a board-certified internist and pediatrician at Weiss Memorial Hospital. Her areas of expertise include women’s health, adolescent medicine, preventive medicine, cancer prevention and chronic disease management.

Suzanne Pham, M.D.
Internist and Pediatrician
Weiss Memorial Hospital
(773) 564-5320

Breast cancer facts and statistics
Breast cancer is a type of cancer where cells in the breast divide and grow abnormally. It is second only to lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States. Tumors in the breast tend to grow slowly. By the time a lump is large enough to feel, it may have been growing for as long as 10 years. Some tumors can be aggressive, however, and grow more rapidly. About 207,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will occur among women in the United States during 2010, and an estimated 40,000 women will die from breast cancer this year. Also, about 2,000 men will be diagnosed and 390 men will die of breast cancer during 2010 in the United States.

Lowering your breast cancer risk
Scheduling regular screening tests is the best way for women to lower their risk of dying from breast cancer. Breast self-exams will help you become familiar with the way your breasts normally look and feel and to learn about the changes that should be reported to your healthcare provider. All women ages 50 to 69 should have yearly mammograms. This guideline is based on scientific evidence from trials done in the United States, Canada and Europe. A 2009 study that combined the data from seven randomized trials found that women aged 50 and older who had regular mammography had a 23 percent lower risk of dying from breast cancer than their peers who did not.

Mammography in women ages 40 to 49 saves lives, but the benefit for these younger women is controversial. One reason is that the dense breast tissue of younger women can make abnormalities harder to find with mammography screening or cause false positive results leading to invasive testing. Decisions regarding screening in women ages 40 to 49 should be made with the assistance of their health care providers. These decisions should be guided by a woman's breast cancer risk profile as well as her own preferences based on the potential benefits and risks of screening mammography.

Following these recommendations may help decrease your risk of breast cancer:

  • Limit alcohol. A link exists between alcohol consumption and breast cancer. How strong a link still needs to be determined. The type of alcohol consumed — wine, beer or mixed drinks — seems to make no difference. To protect yourself from breast cancer, consider limiting alcohol to less than one drink a day or avoid alcohol completely.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. There's a clear link between obesity — weighing more than is appropriate for your age and height — and breast cancer. This is especially true if you gain weight later in life, particularly after menopause. Experts speculate that estrogen production in fatty tissue may be the link between obesity and breast cancer risk.
  • Stay physically active. Regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight and, as a consequence, may aid in breast cancer prevention. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. If you haven't been particularly active in the past, start your exercise program slowly and gradually work up to a greater intensity. Try to include weight-bearing exercises such as walking, jogging or aerobics. These have the added benefit of keeping your bones strong.
  • Limit fat in your diet. Results from the most definitive study of dietary fat and breast cancer risk to date suggest a slight decrease in risk of invasive breast cancer for women who eat a low-fat diet. But the effect is modest at best. However, by reducing the amount of fat in your diet, you may decrease your risk of other diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. And a low-fat diet may protect against breast cancer in another way if it helps you maintain a healthy weight — another factor in breast cancer risk.

For more information
If you would like more information about breast cancer or would like to schedule an appointment, please call Dr. Pham’s office at (773) 564-5320.