By Wendy Chrisenbery
Special to The Globe
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Breast cancer. Two words most every woman fears hearing, and with good reason. Each year, approximately 250,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed. Even more saddening is the fact that the disease claims an estimated 40,000 women each year. Knowing this, all women should take time from their busy lives to take their health into their own hands. Arming ourselves with information about the risks of developing breast cancer and what we can do to prevent or detect it early can lead to a more successful fight against the disease.
Breast cancer risks fall into two categories: risks a woman can’t change and risks that she can. The largest risk factor for developing the disease is one no one can alter — the risk that comes with being a woman. The female hormones estrogen and progesterone are known to promote some breast cancer cell growth. Age is another significant risk factor, because the likelihood of developing breast cancer increases as women grow older. In fact, two out of three invasive breast cancer cases are found in women 55 or older.
For some families, hereditary genetic mutations known as the breast cancer susceptibility genes — commonly called BRCA1 and BRCA2 — greatly raise the odds of a breast cancer diagnosis. If a woman has inherited one of these gene mutations, she has up to an 80 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, partnered with a 50 percent lifetime risk of ovarian cancer. Luckily, scientific advancements have equipped health care providers with a genetic test to determine if a woman is a carrier of one of the BRCA gene mutations.
Simple and painless, this test comes in the form of a mouth rinse. DNA is collected from the sample, and the test takes only five minutes to perform. If it determines a woman is a carrier of a BRCA gene mutation, she and her health care provider will have the option of making informed decisions about her medical management.
Some women proceed with increased mammograms, MRIs and clinical breast exams, while others opt for preventive drug therapy, or even removal of the breast.
But most cases of breast cancer — up to 85 percent — are sporadic, meaning it happens by chance. The good news is that research has shown risks for breast cancer that can be changed or modified. Among these are factors many of us are already familiar with, including physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and limiting alcohol consumption.
But a lesser-known modifiable risk is the use of combined hormone replacement therapy. Some women going through menopause take HRT to relieve hot flashes and other symptoms. HRT is effective at relieving these symptoms because it offsets the changing levels of estrogen and progesterone that naturally occur when menopause sets in. But a 2010 study reported a direct link between a decline in breast cancer among post-menopausal women as their use of HRT also decreased.
Similarly, other studies have reported an increase in the risk of breast cancer, heart disease and other health conditions among women taking combined HRT.
Women who fall into one of these at-risk categories should not fear this information. They should instead use it to empower their health.
Speak with an obstetrician/gynecologist to determine how best to proceed with preventing the disease or detect it at an earlier stage. Stay on top of monthly breast exams and annual mammograms. Breast cancer will be a reality for one in eight women during her lifetime. Knowing the risk of developing the disease will help every woman improve the outcome of that reality.
Wendy Chrisenbery is the supervisor of Wes & Jan Houser Women’s Pavilion located inside Freeman Women’s Center.