Breast health and cancer screening

Dr. Conaway with a patient

A woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is approximately 12%.  That equates to one in eight women in the United States.  And while this number seems high, more women are surviving the disease.  The current 5-year survival rate has improved to 90%, largely due to early detection and better treatments.  Several risk factors have been identified, but most women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have them.

So what is a woman of average risk to do?  Unless you have a strong family history of certain cancers or a personal history of cancer, you are considered average risk.  Modifiable risk factors – factors you can change – include smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and being overweight.  Breastfeeding reduces the lifetime risk of breast cancer.

What else can one do to improve the odds of surviving breast cancer?  Women should try to practice “breast self-awareness.”  Be familiar with the normal feel and appearance of your breasts.  Many women experience cyclic tenderness or swelling of their breasts around their menstrual periods.  This may be normal and does not affect the risk of cancer, but dense breasts – identified by a clinical exam or mammogram – do slightly increase cancer risk.  If you notice skin changes, dimples, nipple discharge or, of course, a lump, contact your physician or health care provider for further evaluation.  Strict adherence to breast self-examination on a monthly basis, as was often taught, is not universally recommended any longer as it may lead to unnecessary worry or testing.

Routine contact with a health care provider is important to keep up with the current preventive care recommendations for immunizations, nutrition, healthy habits or cancer screening.  Mammography is the most commonly utilized screening method for breast cancer, and it is generally recommended that women begin getting mammograms between ages 40 and 45.  Regular visits to a physician or other health care provider is key to identifying risk factors.  Women at high risk of cancer may need to start screening earlier or consider more sensitive imaging tests like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).  Genetic counselling is available if a family history of certain cancers might influence screening recommendations.

So for your overall health, maintain a “self-awareness” of changes in your body and how it feels and functions.  Eat right, get some exercise and avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.  Visit a health care provider on a regular basis to stay up to date with preventive care, and if you don’t feel well or notice something out of the ordinary, see that provider right away.  Remember, early detection and treatment of breast cancer is your best chance for cure!

This article originally appeared in the September 29, 2019, Think Pink edition of The Herald-Dispatch.

For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, call Marshall OB/GYN at 304-691-1400. 3D routine mammograms are also available for already established Marshall Health patients at Marshall Health – Teays Valley. To schedule a screening, call 304-691-1800.


Kevin J. Conaway, MD

Dr. Conaway, fellow of The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine and is Huntington's only board-certified urogynecologist.