There’s no doubt that breast cancer is a worry for many women. And that concern is justified: Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the world, according to the World Health Organization. And rates in the United States have been trending upward, with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) predicting 284,200 new cases in 2021.
Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly why breast cancer is so prevalent. But we do know a lot about prevention. And how early detection can significantly reduce the risk of death.
“Breast cancer is an extremely survivable cancer when it’s caught early,” says Susan O’Connor, MD, a breast surgeon and medical director at Northern Light Breast Surgery in Brewer, Maine. “That’s why it’s so important to understand the risks and prevention methods, so you don’t get to a point where it’s too late.”
The quiz below is designed to gauge your breast cancer knowledge. See if you can choose correctly before scrolling down to see the answer.
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1. What is the leading risk factor for breast cancer?
C. Genetic history
D. Breast density
Women make up more than 99% of new breast cancer cases. In fact, about 1 in 8 American women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, says Dr. O’Connor.
Part of the reason: Women’s breast cells are constantly exposed to estrogen and progesterone, which are known to fuel some types of breast cancer, according to the NCI.
But even though being a woman is the biggest risk factor, it’s not the only thing that matters. Age is also a huge contributing factor. Women who are 30 years old have a 0.5% chance of developing breast cancer within the next 10 years of their life, according to NCI. Once they’re 70, that risk jumps to more than 4%.
Genetics is also an important consideration. Women who have a family history of cancer — breast, ovarian or otherwise — are more likely to develop breast cancer. However, most people who get breast cancer don’t have a family history of the disease.
Some other risk factors include having dense breasts, starting your period early (before the age of 12), starting menopause after the age of 55, and previous treatment with radiation therapy to your chest or breasts.
2. What are some things you can do to lower your risk of developing breast cancer?
B. Limit alcohol use
C. Maintain a healthy weight
D. All of the above
Some breast cancer risk factors are out of your control. However, your daily choices can play a big role in whether you develop the disease. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), at least 18% of all cancer diagnoses in the U.S. can be linked to lifestyle factors such as a lack of exercise, excessive alcohol consumption or an unhealthy diet.
And while physical activity can help prevent breast cancer from occurring, it also has perks for breast cancer survivors. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that women who regularly exercised before their breast cancer diagnosis and after treatment were less likely to die from cancer or have the disease return after treatment.
For cancer prevention, the ACS recommends 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. (If you’re genetically prone to obesity, you may have treatment options you don’t know about.)
Pair your exercise habit with a diet rich in plants (fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans) and avoid alcohol when you can. A paper from researchers at Columbia University notes that even moderate alcohol consumption may increase the risk of breast cancer by 30% to 50%.
3. When should women start getting annual mammograms?
A. In their 40s
B. In their 50s
C. In their 60s
D. In their 70s
“I recommend getting a baseline mammogram screening at 40 years old, at the latest,” says Gail Lebovic, MD, a breast cancer surgeon and founder of The Society of Oncoplastic Surgery in Reno, Nevada. “In an ideal world, we would do a baseline screening at age 35.”
This is for average-risk people, she notes. If you have a history of breast cancer in your family, you should get your first mammogram 10 years before the age your family member was when diagnosed.
And once you start testing, it’s important to keep going back every year. “Having annual mammograms gives radiologists the most information to evaluate change,” says Dr. O’Connor. “Getting one every other year, or every 5 years, is better than no mammogram, but it’s not as helpful as yearly mammograms.”
4. Which ethnic group has the highest breast cancer mortality rate?
B. African American
D. Asian/Pacific Islander
About 30% of Black women who develop breast cancer die from the disease. That’s the highest mortality rate of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. There are several possible explanations for this, says Dr. Lebovic.
“Part of it is simply a lack of education about early detection and screenings,” she says. “The other important factors are access to health care and the cost of screening. And finally, Black women are more likely to have diabetes, heart disease and obesity, which are all risk factors for breast cancer.”
Just as concerning: For women younger than 45, breast cancer rates are higher among Black women than white women, and they are more likely to get diagnosed with a more aggressive form of the disease, according to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners. For more information, visit the African American Breast Cancer Alliance.
5. How often should you perform a breast self-examination?
B. Once a week
C. Once a month
D. Once every 6 months
Self-examinations are more important than ever because primary care physicians often do not perform breast exams as part of a routine physical exam anymore, says Dr. O’Connor. “When it comes to your breasts, it’s important to know what’s normal for you,” she adds. “Breasts are lumpy, but if you haven’t had a lump in a particular spot, you should go get it checked out.”
And self-exams are easier than you might think. There’s no “right” way to do them, says Dr. O’Connor. “You’re just looking for abnormalities,” she says. “Just pay attention to what you’re feeling so you know what’s normal for you.”
If you prefer a methodical approach, she recommends thinking of your breasts as a clock. “I usually start at 12 and work my way around,” she says. “And I work from the outside in, moving toward the nipple.”
In addition to lumps, if you notice nipple abnormalities or unusual leakage, you should have that checked out as well.
6. True or false: Breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer.
“When you’re breastfeeding, estrogen production is suppressed,” Dr. O’Connor says. “This can reduce a woman’s lifetime exposure to the hormone.”
Breastfeeding and pregnancy also allow your body to shed breast tissue. This may remove cells with potential DNA damage, according to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
If you’re new to breastfeeding or struggling with comfort, check out these 8 products that take the frustration out of breastfeeding.
7. What do breast cancer lumps feel like?
A. Soft and movable
B. Painful to touch
C. Round with smooth edges
D. Hard and rigid
Breast cancer lumps often feel like apricot pits, Dr. O’Connor says. “Expect them to feel firm and irregular and just a different texture than the rest of your breast,” she says. “At the end of the day, however, if you notice any changes at all, you should see your doctor.”
Typically, breast cancer lumps aren’t painful, but that doesn’t mean that painful lumps aren’t cancer. “A very small percentage of women can sometimes have painful lumps that turn out to be breast cancer,” says Dr. O’Connor.
Breast cancer lumps can appear anywhere within the breast. In terms of size, you usually won’t be able to feel a lump until it’s about 1 centimeter, but that depends on where the lump is, how deep it is, and how big your breasts are.
8. True or false: Men don’t get breast cancer.
Contrary to popular belief, men, too, can get breast cancer. Older men have a higher risk, but it can present at any age, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Risk factors include a family history of breast cancer, obesity and hormone therapy. For men, conditions that affect the testicles or liver can also play a role. And men who have Klinefelter syndrome, a rare genetic condition that can make the body produce high levels of estrogen, also have a higher risk.
In terms of how it presents, breast cancer in men is almost always found as a lump. “In women, 60% or more of the breast cancers we find you can’t feel and are only detected through imaging,” Dr. Lebovic says. “Since men don’t tend to have regimented screenings, breast cancer is usually found in the form of a lump.”
9. Which of the following is used to treat breast cancer?
C. Hormone therapy
D. All of the above
There are many different types of breast cancer, and some are more aggressive than others. So treatment will vary from one person to another. “In addition to surgery, some breast cancers respond to pills that block estrogen, some respond to chemotherapy and others are best tackled through a combination of treatments,” Dr. O’Connor says. “Modern breast cancer treatment is tailored to the individual and their specific type of cancer.”
10. True or false: Early detection is the most important strategy for preventing deaths from breast cancer.
Over the past 20 years, doctors and researchers have made tremendous progress when it comes to breast cancer treatment. “Most women will go on to live a normal lifespan after being diagnosed with breast cancer — if it’s caught in the early stages,” says Dr. Lebovic.
In fact, the 5-year relative survival rate is 99% when breast cancer is detected early and is in the localized stage, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. By being proactive, you can reduce your risk tremendously.
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Breast cancer stats: World Health Organization
Expected cases in 2021: National Cancer Institute
Estrogen, progestogen and cancer: National Cancer Institute
Risk increases with age: Breastcancer.org
Lifestyle factors and cancer: American Cancer Society
Exercise helps prevent cancer return: Journal of National Cancer Institute (2020). “Physical Activity Before, During, and After Chemotherapy for High-Risk Breast Cancer: Relationships With Survival”
Moderate alcohol intake increases breast cancer risk: Current Breast Cancer Reports (2013). “Alcohol intake and breast cancer risk: Weighing the overall evidence”
Black women and breast cancer: Breast Cancer Prevention Partners
Breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer: MD Anderson Cancer Center
99% survival rate with early detection: National Breast Cancer Foundation
Men and breast cancer: The Mayo Clinic