Dr. Lynn Dyess, professor of surgery at the USA College of Medicine, says that one in eight women get breast cancer, making awareness important for all women.
Primary risks of breast cancer include family history, early menarche (starting menstrual cycles early in life), late menopause, having never been pregnant, or having your first full-term pregnancy after the age of 30.
According to Dr. Dyess, the majority of breast problems are not cancer. As a result, she encourages women not to panic when a problem arises.
She said breast discomfort, or pain, is a frequent complaint of women. However, most breast discomfort is physiologic and not an indicator of breast cancer. Breast pain may be associated with a breast infection, menstruation or menopause. According to Dr. Dyess, only rarely would breast pain be the first symptom experienced by a woman with breast cancer.
“When a patient comes in with breast pain, we evaluate them and do our best to prove that it’s not cancer, and then we try to find conservative ways to help them with their pain,” she said.
Sometimes, patients visit their doctor when a mass is found. “The majority of masses we see are not cancer,” she said. “The likelihood of a breast mass being cancer depends on your age.” Breast masses in young women are usually not cancer, but cancer can occur at any age.
According to Dr. Dyess, it is common for women to be concerned about their family history of breast cancer, but are often confused about what qualifies as a family history. Dr. Dyess said a significant family history is the family history of a primary care member, meaning a mother, sister or daughter. A secondary care member would be your grandmother or aunt.
“Just because you have a family history does not mean you are going to get breast cancer,” she said. “Likewise, if you don’t have a family history, you can still get breast cancer.”
Dr. Dyess said there are different stages of breast cancer, and it is extremely important to catch the disease at an early stage.
Stage 0 - The disease in its early stage is about 98 percent curable and doesn’t require chemotherapy. It is non-invasive cancer confined to the breast and is not expected to be found outside the breast.
Stage 1 - The disease is confined to the breast, small, and does not involve lymph nodes.
Stages 2 and 3 – These stages involve either a larger cancer or a cancer that has spread just to the lymph nodes under the arm.
Stage 4 – At this stage, it is a metastatic disease – when a tumor has come out of the breast and gone through the lymph nodes and into other parts of the body such as the bone, liver, brain, and lung.
“We don’t see many patients present with metastatic disease at the time of diagnosis,” Dr. Dyess said.
“Even when you present with metastatic disease, there are good treatment options available for you,” she added. “The diagnosis of breast cancer is not a death sentence.”
Breast cancer isn’t just in women, either. Dr. Dyess said that for every 100 women with breast cancer, it is expected that there will be one case of male breast cancer. She said the problem with men getting breast cancer is that they will present at a much later age or at a more advanced stage.
Some things everyone can do to help prevent breast cancer include limiting alcohol intake, quitting smoking and exercising regularly.
Dr. Dyess pointed out that women should start getting annual mammograms at the age of 40, but that women under 40 should learn how to complete self-breast exams. If you already have a family history of breast cancer, Dr. Dyess said you should begin mammography screenings 10 years earlier than the age the primary family member was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She said mammograms are important because they can catch breast cancer early, and they pick up far more cancers than a clinical examination or a self-breast examination.
“You must get your mammograms,” she said. “If you detect cancer early you still have every opportunity to do well.”
As a reminder, women who visit the USA Children’s & Women’s Hospital Imaging Center for mammography screenings receive their test results before the even leave the hospital. To learn more about mammography screenings at USA, click here - http://www.usahealthsystem.com/mammography.
Dr. Dyess recently gave an overview of breast cancer at the October Med School Café lecture. To view the lecture in its entirety, click here - https://vimeo.com/53431042.