10 Things Oncologists Wish You Knew About Breast Cancer

Health Writer
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Don’t become a statistic. Here’s how to protect yourself from this potentially deadly disease.

The pinkification of breast cancer has been good and bad: It has its own ribbon, its own month, and has even shown up on NFL helmets. And yet, all of the superficial “pink” surrounding the disease has sometimes overshadowed the updates to its care: Myths pervade, with misinformation that can make a diagnosis super-scary.

Don’t get us wrong: It is scary, whether it’s happening to you or a loved one. Each year, an estimated 269,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, the most common cancer type among women and the fourth most deadly, taking more than 40,000 lives yearly, according to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER).

But new innovations bring new hope—and empowering yourself with the latest information can make things feel less terrifying. Here are 10 things breast cancer experts want you to know.


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Breast cancer probably won’t kill you

“Most people will survive their cancer,” says Adam Brufsky, M.D., co-director of Comprehensive Breast Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. Overall, 90 percent of women with breast cancer will survive five or more years, according to SEER data. And if you are diagnosed early, before the cancer has spread, you have an up to 99 percent chance of surviving that long.


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Most breast cancers are caught early

Thanks to American Cancer Society breast cancer screening guidelines, most cases are caught when the disease is most curable. Nearly 2 in 3 breast cancers are diagnosed before they’ve spread, according to SEER data. And in many cases, they are diagnosed as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), considered a stage 0 cancer in the lining of the milk ducts. “It’s a precursor to cancer,” says Dr. Brufksy.


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Young women get breast cancer too

Two percent of breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women 20 to 34, and other 9 percent in women 35 to 44, according to SEER. Young women are at higher risk if they have a family history. More on that later.


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More candles on your cake = bigger threat

“The older you get, the higher your risk,” says Julie Nangia, M.D., director of the Breast Cancer Prevention and High Risk Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The average age for women diagnosed with breast cancer is 62, and the most frequently diagnosed age group is between 55 and 64.


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A genetic test may reveal your risk

Mutations on the BRCA genes—which help repair damage in your cells to guard against cancer—increase your breast cancer risk, but it isn’t a definite. According to research published in JAMA in 2017, carriers of the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 mutations have a 72 percent and 69 percent chance, respectively, of developing breast cancer by age 80.

But even if you are a carrier, there are things you can do to protect yourself, such as yearly Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans for more comprehensive screening or even prophylactic—that is, preventive—mastectomy, says Dr. Brufsky.


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A genetic test probably won’t reveal your risk

The BRCA tests are great, but most cases of breast cancer aren’t genetic, says Dr. Nangia. According to research in the American Journal of Public Health in 2012, about 80 to 85 percent of breast cancers occur in women with no family history. This is why The American Cancer Society recommends screenings after age 45 are essential for women at average risk.


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Your whole family history matters, including the men

A mom or sister with breast cancer would be a red flag, but having lots of cousins might be indicative, too — as is having breast cancer among your dad’s family members, says Dr. Brufsky. A heavy history of prostate cancer can be telling as well, since this can be related to the BRCA mutation.


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You may not need to go wig shopping

“The toxicity of treatments, particularly the hormonal therapy, isn’t as bad as people believe,” says Dr. Brufsky. “People think they are going to be sick, they are going to be throwing up if they get chemo. But the vast majority of people do reasonably well.”


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Screening in young women can be less accurate

If your doctor has recommended screening early — possibly due to a family history — a mammogram may not be best. “Most women should be getting a mammogram yearly starting at age 40,” says Dr. Brufsky. “But women who are younger have denser breasts, and the cancer can be missed.” Learn more about dense breast tissue and cancer risk, and talk to your doctor about getting an ultrasound — which can offer better detection.


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Men get breast cancer too

Men have breast tissue — usually a small amount under the nipple — making them susceptible to breast cancer, says Dr. Nangia. They do have a much lower risk, though. Men make up less than 1 percent of all breast cancer patients, according to 2010 research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

A genetic link raises the risk in men too. According to research published in the Journal of Medical Genetics in 2010, men who carry the BRCA2 genetic mutation have an 8 percent chance of developing breast cancer by the time they are 80.


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You have more control than you think

Healthy behaviors can improve your prognosis and make a breast cancer reoccurrence less likely. According to a 2017 review published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, hitting the recommended allotment of physical activity a week — 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise — has the greatest effect on breast cancer outcomes. Staying lean is also important, since weight gain has been linked to reoccurrence.