Written By: Jamie Patterson, MD, Director, Breast Health Center at Kent; Breast Surgeon, Kent Hospital and Women & Infants Hospital on October 13, 2022
How do you know if you are at high risk of breast cancer? Should you be worried about it?
Many people think they have a higher risk of developing breast cancer or are “high Risk” because they have breast cancer in their family. We know that as much as 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer sometime in their lifetime and that someone’s personal risk may be higher if they have certain cancers in their family. But it’s often hard to tell how high that risk is or when it’s significant enough that they need help to prevent it (or at least catch it as early as possible when it’s most curable.)
Breast cancer risk has changed a lot over the years as we learn more about it. Historically, we would tell every woman to start getting mammograms at 40 regardless of their risk, but that’s not always the case. Now we have all kinds of ways to estimate a person’s individual breast cancer risk and can predict how that might change over time as they age. Most people don’t necessarily have a higher-than-average risk of breast cancer even if they have it in their family, but it can certainly be anxiety-provoking just to have it on your mind.
At the Breast Health Centers at Kent and Women & Infants, we now have specialized High Risk Programs designed to evaluate each person’s risk of developing breast cancer. It starts with a simple mammogram, which also gives you and your doctor a preliminary estimate of your breast cancer risk, and lets you know if you might want to consider high risk screening and/or genetic testing for breast cancer-associated genes, like BRCA1, BRCA2, PALB2 or many others. If you and your doctor decide a more detailed evaluation is needed, we have a High Risk Clinic just for that! We narrow down the best, most accurate estimate of your risk, explain what it means, and create a personalized plan to take advantage of the best ways to help prevent it.
What about young women in their 20's or early 30’s? It can be difficult to know when you need to start taking an interest in your breast health, and it’s different for every person. Many professional medical societies recommend undergoing a breast cancer risk assessment (or evaluation) when a woman reaches 25 years of age. Although this sounds early and scary, all it actually means is that you sit down with your doctor and ask about your family history and other personal medical histories to see if there’s any reason to consider earlier options. Most women will not need to do anything until they’re 40-50 years old, but it all depends on what their risk factors are. By doing this early, you can form a plan of when you need to start mammograms or anything else that might be needed. Women who are found to be at very high risk, or our BRCA-gene carriers like Angelina Jolie, may want to start a screening or prevention program at 25.
What about male breast cancer? Although it’s rare, breast cancer can affect men as well. Especially if it runs in their family or there are other cancers that tend to run with them, such as ovarian, pancreatic, or some prostate cancers.
Breast cancer affects 12-13% of the population. So almost all of us are affected by someone we know, if we haven’t been personally affected ourselves. If you think you or someone you care about may need a closer look at their breast cancer risk, speak with your healthcare provider, who can help you determine if you should be concerned. The good news is that there are many options available for prevention, early detection and for cures. We’re here to help.