Being Well

Breast Cancer Prevention: How Mammograms and Lifestyle Changes Can Help

March 8 is International Women's Day, and breast cancer is the leading cancer for women in the US. Researchers and physicians agree that screenings, as well as healthy habits like exercise, are an important part of breast cancer prevention.

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and breast cancer is the leading cancer for women in the U.S. There has been a lot of controversy lately about mammograms and how helpful breast cancer screening can be, but the goal is always to discover breast cancer before it can spread to other areas of your body. Mammograms are not perfect and can result in false positives, which can lead to unneeded further testing. On the whole, however, researchers and physicians still agree that screening is an important part of breast cancer prevention.

Are Mammograms Worth It?

Carrie M. Rochman, MD, assistant professor of radiology and radiologist for UVA’s Breast Care Program, admits that screening carries some risks. About 10 percent of women will have to undergo further testing after their first mammogram, including a biopsy in some cases. She maintains, however, that screenings remain the best way to detection breast cancer early on. “Numerous studies have shown a decrease in breast cancer deaths for women that undergo yearly mammography screening.” says Dr. Rochman. “The decrease in breast cancer deaths is at least 30 percent when compared to women that don’t get screened. Screening mammograms provide an opportunity to find cancer at a smaller and more treatable stage.”

When Should You Get Checked?

The American Cancer Society recommends that all women between 45 and 55 years old get a mammogram every year, and once every two years after that. You should start before that (as early as age 30) if you have family members with breast cancer or if you have genetic mutations (like BRCA gene mutations) that could increase your risk. Breastcancer.org has some great info on genetics and how you can get tested.

Although breast cancer is a very complicated disease, there are many known factors that can increase your risk. “Unfortunately, many of the major risk factors associated with breast cancer cannot be controlled,” warns Dr. Rochman. Aside from heredity and genetics, Centers for Disease Control lists dense breast tissue and age as uncontrollable risk factors. None of this means that your are powerless in breast cancer prevention, but you should talk with your doctor about your paticular risk factors to help decide when screening is prudent.

How Can You Lower Your Risk?

In addition to moderate alcohol consumption, staying physically active and avoiding smoking, the Mayo Clinic recommends maintaining a healthy weight and limiting hormone replacement therapy. Being overweight, especially after menopause, may increase hormone and insulin levels, both of which are associated with breast cancer. Hormone therapy, which many women use to help with menopause symptoms, can raise your risk at certain doses and durations. You may want to talk with your doctor about alternative medications and treatment options during menopause to decrease your cancer risk.

Breast cancer is a complicated disease caused by multiple factors, some of which are out of your control. Adapting a healthy lifestyle helps, but seeking out screening may be the easiest and most effective weapon you have in early detection. And what better way to celebrate International Women’s Day by taking control of your health!

UVA Cancer Center offers mobile mammography. Catch the coach when it’s in your area, or bring it to your site.

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Larry Istrail
Larry Istrail