Know your breast cancer risks, get screened, and know what's normal for your body to improve your peace of mind.
Julie Roeder of Portland, Oregon, didn't worry about breast cancer back in 2005. She was 30 and thought she was too young to get it. So she was surprised when she felt a lump in her breast one day while she was showering. She quickly got in to see her doctor, who found a mass and did a needle biopsy. The lump was diagnosed as a fibroadenoma, a common breast tumor that is not cancerous.
A few months later, Roeder found out she was pregnant, and the lump was still bothersome. It just didn't feel right to her, so she had another needle biopsy. That, too, came back negative for cancer. Despite the good news, she remembers walking down the hall with her husband afterward and thinking to herself, "Oh my God, can you imagine if I had breast cancer and I was pregnant?"
Three months later, the lump was still there, and it had grown. Worried that it would cause problems when she breastfed her baby, Roeder opted to have it removed during her pregnancy. During the surgery, her doctors discovered that the fibroadenoma was sitting in a bed of cancer cells. She had stage 1 breast cancer.
After finding out she had breast cancer, Roeder remembers feeling numb. Then she just started going through the motions of what her doctors told her to do. "I found out I had cancer on a Friday, saw the oncologist Monday, found out we were having a girl on Thursday and had a mastectomy the following Friday," says Roeder. "It was a crazy few weeks."
When you should get screened
You should have your breasts screened for cancer even if you don't have any symptoms. When you're in your 20s and 30s, you should have a clinical breast exam as part of your regular health exam at least every three years. You should also do regular self-exams beginning in your 20s. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women ages 40 and older have a mammogram—an X-ray picture of the breast—every one to two years. A mammogram is the best way to find cancer even before symptoms appear.
You may be more likely to get breast cancer if you have hereditary risks or other risks.
Hereditary risk factors
- Being younger when you had your first menstrual period
- Being older at menopause
- A personal history of breast cancer, dense breasts or other breast problems
- A family history of breast cancer (parent, sibling or child)
- Changes in your breast cancer-related genes (BRCA1 or BRCA2)
Nonhereditary risk factors
- Getting radiation therapy to the breast or chest
- Using hormone replacement therapy for a long time
- Never giving birth or being older at the birth of your first child
- Being overweight, especially after menopause
Roeder didn't have the typical risk factors. She was young and didn't have a family history of breast cancer. But after finding the lump, she knew something wasn't right. "It just felt weird, and I knew it shouldn't be there, so we kept at it," she says. "Thankfully we did because it was an estrogen-receptive breast cancer, meaning that it feeds off the estrogen in my body. If we had waited till after the pregnancy to remove it, it probably wouldn't have been in stage 1 anymore."
After the birth of her daughter, Roeder had her other breast removed and underwent multiple reconstructive surgeries, but she has been cancer-free for eight years. Her daughter, Jaden, just turned eight.
Regardless of your risks, talk to your doctor about lifestyle choices that can lower your risk of getting cancer.
If you're 40 to 49 years old or think you may have a higher risk of breast cancer, ask your doctor when you should start having mammograms.
And pay attention to your body. "If something feels weird in your body, you need to check with your doctor and see what's going on," says Roeder. "You're the one who knows your body best. As scary as it is, you need to have it checked out."