Breast health questions, answers

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photoDr. Jennifer Ochsner

It is the time of year when the leaves are changing, kids are back in school, and the aroma of apple cider is in the air.

It is also the time of year when pink ribbons seem to be almost everywhere — October is breast cancer awareness month. This is a time for people to slow down and reflect upon our friends and family members who have had breast cancer, appreciate the struggles of families dealing with breast cancer in a loved one and honor those we have lost to this disease. This can also be a time of mixed emotions for the estimated 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.

It is also a time for women to think about their own breast health. As a breast radiologist at The Vancouver Clinic, I am regularly asked a few questions about breast cancer that I would like to share with you this October:

• Nobody in my family has ever had breast cancer. Why should I get a mammogram?

Great question. The vast majority (85 percent) of women diagnosed with breast cancer have NO family history. That is why we recommend yearly screening mammograms for all women over the age of 40. The goal of a screening mammogram is to find breast cancer early, before it can be felt. That is when breast cancer is the smallest and most treatable.

• I heard on the news that women under 50 no longer need to get mammograms. Is this true?

No, not true. One in six women diagnosed with breast cancer are between the ages of 40 to 49. The American Cancer Society, American College of Radiology, American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and multiple other medical societies recommend yearly mammograms starting at age 40 for most women. One set of recommendations, released in 2009 by the United States Preventative Services Task Force, was different from the others. It did not recommend routine mammograms until age 50. The majority of medical societies are in disagreement with this recommendation.

• I'm really worried. So many women in my family have had breast cancer. Is there anything else I can do?

It can be really stressful to have a strong family history of breast cancer. While there is no proven way to prevent breast cancer, there are some things that you can do to lower your risk of getting it. This includes getting regular physical activity, avoiding weight gain, and limiting alcohol intake. If you think that you have a higher risk of developing breast cancer than most women, talk to your doctor about it. Sometimes genetic testing is recommended and sometimes additional or early screening is suggested. If your lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is estimated to be greater than 20 percent, yearly screening breast MRI may be beneficial in addition to yearly screening mammograms.

If you are interested in learning more about breast cancer, the American Cancer Society has a great website with detailed and helpful information: http://www.cancer.org.