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A Road Map to Breast Health

5 Ways to Navigate Breast Health

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in the United States. Early detection is key to catching breast cancer when it is most treatable. Understanding your options for your own breast health can provide you with a road map to know what to do. Here are five things to know to navigate your breast health.

You Can Control Some Risk Factors

You cannot change your age, personal or family history, inherited genes or gender, but you can manage other breast cancer risk factors. Here are steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a healthy diet, full of fruits and vegetables to boost your immune system
  • Do not use tobacco
  • Limit how much alcohol you drink
  • Exercise regularly to control your stress

Genetics Have an Impact

About 13% of all women diagnosed with cancer have a mother, sister or daughter who has also been diagnosed with breast cancer. Women who have close blood relatives with breast or ovarian cancer are at higher risk; with every additional family member diagnosed before menopause, this risk increases. If this is the case in your family, consult with your physician about your prevention plan. Consider getting a baseline mammogram at least 10 years before the age your family member was diagnosed. For example, if your mother was 40, your baseline should be at age 30. Mammograms are not recommended before the age of 30.

Detection Is in Your Hands

You know your body best, so breast self-awareness is an important part of your health. Whether in the shower, in front of a mirror, or lying down, be aware of skin changes of the breast or nipple region, lumps or swelling in the breast or armpits, nipple discoloration/discharge, or changes in the shape, size or position of your breast. Report any changes to your physician. The best time for evaluating your breasts and to schedule a mammogram is the week after your period ends, when your breasts are more pliable.

Screenings Save Lives

Screening with mammography is an essential part of your breast health. The American Cancer Society recommends that women at average risk for developing breast cancer get yearly mammograms starting at age 45. However, depending on your personal or family history, your physician may recommend you start screening at the age of 40. There are many diagnostic tools available, but many consider digital breast tomosynthesis, also known as 3-D mammography, to be the new standard of care. Research shows that by using X-ray technology, 3-D mammography provides a more detailed view of the breast tissue and fewer false positives.

Women With Dense Breasts Have It Harder

More than 50% of women have dense breasts, which can mask abnormalities on a standard digital mammogram, making it more difficult to screen. Dense breast tissue is also an independent risk factor for developing breast cancer. The automated breast ultrasound screening exam (ABUS) is designed to supplement the yearly mammogram to detect cancer in women with dense breasts. Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital and Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital were the first hospitals in the western suburbs to offer this leading-edge screening tool.

Breast health takes time to navigate, and breast cancer prevention can be a multistep journey. Your primary care physician can support you along the way and connect you with specialists in breast health to guide you through prevention and screening as well as diagnosis and treatment if needed.

Northwestern Medicine Breast Health Program

At Northwestern Medicine, we are committed to providing comprehensive care and support at any stage of your personal healthcare journey.