Who can get breast cancer?
Anyone can get breast cancer, but breast cancer is highly connected with gender and age. Approximately 12% of women get breast cancer and approximately 0.1% of men get breast cancer. For women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, 77% are over age 50 and 1% are in their 20s. Thus, you can get breast cancer if you are man or a woman, and if you are a woman, you have higher chance of getting breast cancer as you get older.
Know your body
While breast cancer is most common at age 50 and older, and it is rare for young women to develop breast cancer, it can and does happen. When diagnosed with breast cancer, it tends to be more aggressive. To ensure that you notice any changes in your breasts early, you should perform self-examinations regularly as this will give you a good sense of how your breasts feel and look. This will make it easier for you to identify when changes occur – like lumps, or feelings of tenderness or pain. Monthly breast self-examinations are a healthy habit to follow and an important key to being your own best health advocate. You should see your doctor right away if you find a lump in your breast or notice any of these symptoms: dimpling, rash or itching, nipple discharge, lumps in/on breast or underarm area. Also, you should trust your instincts. If you are uncomfortable with what your health care provider says, get a second opinion.
Keeping your breast healthy through regular breast self-examinations is a good habit to develop as a young woman. Most women with breast cancer have a high chance of survival if the cancer is detected and treated early. One way to ensure that you catch any abnormal growth early is to perform self-examinations of your breasts regularly. Starting this habit at a young age will help you know what a healthy breast feels like.
How to Do A Breast Self Exam
At 3-5 days after your period ends, set aside 15 minutes to perform your monthly breast self-exam. This is usually a good time to examine your breasts as your hormone levels are stable and your breasts are less tender. Here are the steps for performing a breast self-exam:
Step 1: Stand in front of a mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips. Look at the size, shape and color of your breasts. They should be evenly shaped without any distortion or swelling. If you see any of the following, seek a doctor’s opinion:
- Redness, soreness rash or swelling
- Dimpling, puckering or bulging of the skin
- A nipple that has changed position
- A nipple that is pushed inward instead of sticking out
- Fluid discharge from the nipples
Step 2: Raise your arms and repeat what you did in step 1.
Step 3: Lie down and use your left hand to check your right breast, and your right hand to check your left breast like this:
- Keeping your fingers flat and together so that you are using the pads of your fingers, firmly press around your breast from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen and from your armpit to your cleavage.
- Move your fingers up and down in a line, as if you are mowing a lawn. Or, you can move in a circle starting from your nipple.
Step 4: Stand or sit and repeat what you did in step 3.
Contact your doctor if you feel any of the following:
- Lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area
- Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast
- Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
- Change in the shape/size of the breast
- Dimpling or puckering of skin
- Nipple discharge
- Persistent pain
Download our Breast Self Examination Card to use as reminders or to share with others.
Factors that can increase your chances of getting breast cancer
Factors and characteristics that increase your chances of getting breast cancer are called risk factors. The main risk factors of breast cancer are being a woman (breast cancer is rare in men) and getting older (breast cancer is generally found in women who are 50 years old or older). It is important that you understand that having risk factors does not mean that you will get breast cancer. Also, it is important that you know that you may get breast cancer even without any risk factors that they know of. This is why you need to be your best advocate for your health and stay informed about what the risk factors of breast cancer are and how you can lower your risk.
Risk factors of breast cancer include:
- Gender: Women are at higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer than men. Approximately 12% of women get breast cancer and 0.1% of men get breast cancer.
- Aging: Your risk of developing breast cancer increases as you become older. For women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, 77% are over age 50 and 1% are in their 20s.
- Genetics: About 5% -10% of breast cancer cases are associated with abnormalities in genes, which can be passed on from parent to child. Some examples of genes that may become abnormal and lead to breast cancer are:
- BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes: BRCA gene means BReast CAncer gene. The normal BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes help to repair damaged DNA so that cells can continue to grow and function normally. Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 account for about 10% of all breast cancers, and this is considered to be rare. If you have a BRCA1 mutation or BRCA2 mutation or both, you may have approximately 40%-70% chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Compared to breast cancers without a BRCA1 mutation or BRCA2 mutation, breast cancers that are associated with a BRCA1 mutation or BRCA2 mutation tend to be more common in younger women and tend to occur in both breasts.
- ATM gene: The ATM gene normally helps cells repair damaged DNA. Though rare, mutations in the ATM gene have been linked to breast cancer.
- TP53 gene: The TP53 gene normally instructs cells how to make a protein called p53 that helps stop the growth of abnormal cells. Though rare, mutations of the TP53 gene lead to an increased risk of breast cancer.
- CHEK2 gene: The CHEK2 gene normally helps cells with DNA repair. A CHEK2 mutation can increase your breast cancer risk.
- PTEN gene: The PTEN gene normally helps cells grow properly. Though rare, mutations in the PTEN gene can increase your risk of developing breast cancer.
- CDH1 gene: The CDH1 gene makes a protein that helps cells bind together. Though rare, a woman with a mutated CDH1 gene has a 39% to 52% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer.
- STK11 gene: The SK11 gene normally helps cells grow properly. Though rare, mutations in the SK11 gene may lead to increased risk of developing breast cancer.
- PALB2 gene: The PALB2 gene normally makes a protein that interacts with the protein made by the BRCA2 gene to ensure that damaged DNA is repaired. Women with a PALB2 mutation may have a 33% to 53% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer.
- Family history of breast cancer: Breast cancer risk is higher among women who have relatives with this disease. This includes your mother, sister, aunt and others.
- Personal history of breast cancer: If you have had cancer before, you have an increased risk of developing a new cancer in another part of the same breast or in the other breast.
- Race and Ethnicity: Breast cancer is more common in African-American women under 45 years of age. However, above 45 years old, white women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than African-American women.
- Dense Breast: With dense breasts, it is difficult to see abnormalities in the breast tissues. Thus, if you have dense breast and develop breast cancer, it may take longer to detect the breast cancer.
- Menstruation before age 12: If you start your period before age 12, your risk of breast cancer may be higher. This may be because you have been exposed to hormones for longer.
- Oral Contraceptives: Some forms of oral contraceptives (birth control pills) raise breast cancer risk.
- Radiation Therapy: If you have had radiation therapy to the chest or breasts before age 30, you have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
- Lifestyle-related factors: Breast cancer risk can be higher if you are overweight or obese, if you are physically inactive, if you drinkalcohol, and/or if you smoke.
Reducing your risk
You should have regular screening for breast cancer, starting at 20 years old, in addition to your monthly breast self-exams. In addition, you can reduce your risk of breast cancer by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, not smoking, eating healthy and nutritious food, lowering alcohol intake, lowering exposure to environmental chemicals and toxins, and minimizing exposure to radiation to chest/face.
Early Detection and Treatment
Although it is difficult to prevent breast cancer, through early detection and treatment, you can significantly increase your chance of surviving breast cancer. In fact, 90% of women diagnosed with breast cancer survive if their breast cancer is found at an early stage. This is why early detection is key and why women should be knowledgeable about breast health from an early age.
Be your own best advocate
To be your best advocate, you know these things:
- It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you or someone else because you have cancer. If this happens, you can take action, such as through the help of a discrimination lawyer.
- It is ok if you wish to take a leave of absence from your job during your breast cancer treatment. In some cases you are allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave.
- Medical care can be expensive. If you have health insurance, your policy may cover some of the costs associated with your diagnosis, tests and treatment. Be sure to review what is covered under your policy.
- It may take some adjustment, but you can work around your treatment. Speak with your medical team about scheduling your doctor visits around your work. You may experience some side effects from the treatment, which may mean that you work less hours, work remotely or delegate some tasks to coworkers.
To learn more about breast health, how you can educate your peers and empower them to become their best advocates, you can join the Peer Education Through Awareness and Leadership (PETALS) program. This educational program teaches young women about their breast health and about conducting breast self-examinations. It also empowers then through lessons on prevention, wellness and body care.
To build a community of your peers who choose to change the way they think and live, who ask the right questions, speak up about their health, educate physicians and become community activists who help to decrease health disparities, we need you. You can make a difference and use your voice. Become a volunteer with Tigerlily Foundation.