According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), breast cancer is one of the most common cancers among women in the United States. Each year in the U.S., about 240,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women and about 2,100 in men. Although deaths from breast cancer have declined over time, breast cancer is still the second leading cause of cancer death among women overall. In addition, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among Hispanic women and Black women die from breast cancer at a higher rate than white women. About 1 in every 100 breast cancer diagnoses are found in men in the U.S.
The month of October is recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a health observance that reminds us to be aware of the symptoms and risk factors for breast cancer as well as steps we can take to improve our health and possibly help lower the risk of getting breast cancer or finding it early when it may be easier to treat. Mammograms, x-rays of the breast, are especially important because they may detect breast cancer when there are no apparent symptoms. When symptoms of breast cancer develop they may include:
• New lump in breast or underarm (armpit)
• Changes in size or shape of breast
• Thickening or swelling in parts of the breast
• Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
• Pain in any area of the breast
• Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
• Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
• Redness or flakiness in nipple are or breast
Screening recommendations vary between experts including age to start screening and frequency of screening, but for women at average risk for breast cancer the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends biennial screening mammography from age 50 to 74 years. The decision to start screenings for women who are 40 to 49 years of age should be an individual one. Women with certain risk factors for breast cancer may need to start screening at an earlier age and may need more frequent screening.
Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. It is a good idea to talk with a doctor about potential benefits and risk factors that come with various types of screenings.
There are two types of mammograms: a standard two-dimensional (2-D) image where each breast is compressed from two different angles (top to bottom and side to side), and a three-dimensional (3-D) image, also known as breast tomosynthesis, where each breast is compressed from two different angles as with a 2-D mammogram but in which the machine takes several low-dose x-rays, moving in an arc direction around the breast. While 3-D mammograms are increasing in popularity, it may not be available in all areas.
The CDC provides several steps to prepare for a mammogram, such as avoiding deodorants, perfume, or powders under the arm or breasts on exam day. Some of these products can show up as white spots on the x-rays.
Find a Health Center is a helpful tool for finding local mammography centers. Check to see that the imaging facility you choose is certified and accepts your insurance. Many organizations offer free mammograms and breast screenings.
The health and medical professionals at UnitedHealthcare advise talking with your doctor to discuss health history, any symptoms you may be experiencing, or preventive screenings. Let Breast Cancer Awareness Month be a reminder to follow the suggestions here for your health and wellbeing.
Dr. Ana Stankovic, chief medical officer, UnitedHealthcare of New England