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Breast Cancer in High-Risk Patients: Common Questions Answered

About one in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. This is a staggering statistic, and one that makes it clear how important it is to get screened regularly—especially if you have a family history of the disease.

Francesca M. Delach, MD, breast surgeon, and Stefania E. Nolano, DO, FACS, director of the breast program at Abington – Jefferson Health, address some of the most common questions about breast cancer screening among high-risk patients.

Q: When should those with a family history of breast cancer start regular screenings?

Dr. Nolano: Guidance for breast cancer screening is ever-changing, so your primary care physician will be able to give you an answer based on your family history and your current health status. But generally speaking, we recommend getting regular mammograms starting ten years prior to the age of the earliest diagnosis in your immediate family. Your doctor can give you an assessment to determine your lifetime risk level, which will also indicate if you need additional tests or screenings.

Q: Is there any way to reduce the risk of breast cancer?

Dr. Delach: Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about risk factors such as family history or age, but some lifestyle adjustments can reduce your overall risk of breast cancer, such as:

  • Completing 30 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise every day—this can be as simple as walking the dog
  • Eating a well-balanced, low-fat diet
  • Reducing alcohol intake to less than two drinks per day on average
  • Getting seven to eight hours of sleep
  • Taking vitamins and mineral supplements as necessary for your diet and lifestyle

These lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of any number of diseases and conditions. Even if you’re not at high risk for breast cancer, it’s a good idea to start implementing some healthy habits into your everyday life.

Q: What symptoms or changes will appear with an occurrence of breast cancer?

Dr. Delach: Thankfully, the most common way to catch breast cancer is through mammography, so you may not experience many symptoms before a diagnosis. If you’re high risk or concerned about breast cancer, you’ll want to look for changes in your skin, breast and nipple. Pain is actually not a symptom of breast cancer, so if you have breast pain you won’t need to worry. Regardless, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about any concerning symptoms.

Q: What’s the best way to keep an eye out for symptoms of breast cancer?

Dr. Nolano: It’s all about breast self-awareness. Get familiar with your body so you can easily identify any changes that occur and bring them up with your doctor. If you’re doing self-breast exams, make sure you perform them around the same time of your cycle. Once a month, about a week after your menstrual cycle, is the best time to do it.

Q: Many mammogram appointments were rescheduled because of the pandemic. When should patients go back for their screenings?

Dr. Nolano: If you missed your last screening appointment, you should schedule a mammogram as soon as possible. Mammograms are our best defense against breast cancer, so it’s important you don’t wait. If it’s been over a year since your last screening, there shouldn’t be any issues with your insurance, so be sure to reschedule now.

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