Mother and daughter walking for breast cancer awareness

Beyond the Pink Ribbons: What You Should Know About Breast Cancer

Breast cancer will be diagnosed in 1 of 8 women in their lifetime. Because it is one of the most common cancers in women, most of us will have some sort of experience with it—whether it’s our own journey or that of a family member, friend or coworker.

Knowing the high rates of diagnosis, it’s important for women to understand the risk factors, be proactive about their breast health, and learn about the resources available for support.

What Is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer, like other cancers, is a disease characterized by abnormal cells that grow and invade healthy cells in the body. Breast cancer starts in the cells of the breasts and can invade surrounding tissues and spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body. There are different kinds of breast cancer, and it can begin in different parts of the breast. To learn more about these details and to view helpful diagrams, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What Are the Signs of Breast Cancer?

Different people have different signs of breast cancer, and some people do not have any signs at all. Warning signs can include:

  • New lump in breast or armpit.
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin, redness or flaky skin near the nipple.
  • Swelling of part of the breast.
  • Any change in size or shape of the breast.
  • Pain in any area of the breast.
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that any of these symptoms can happen with other conditions that aren’t cancer. For example, a lump in your breast could be a cyst. And what’s normal for your breast (maybe you think they’re lumpy or uneven) may not be normal for someone else. Your breasts can feel different when you are pregnant, get your period, take certain medications and more. The important thing is that if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you, see your health care provider right away.

What Are the Risk Factors?

Women are now the fastest-growing group of U.S. Veterans and VA health care is committed to making sure you have the best care available.

Understanding your risk for breast cancer can help you make informed decisions and be proactive about your health.

  • Age — Your risk for breast cancer increases with age. Most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older.
  • Genetic mutations — Women who have inherited mutations to certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, are at higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
  • Having dense breasts — Dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, which can make it harder to see tumors on a mammogram.
  • Reproductive history — If you start your period before age 12 or begin menopause after age 55, you are exposed to hormones longer, which raises your risk level.
  • Personal history — Women who have had breast cancer are more likely to get it a second time. Some other breast diseases are also associated with a higher risk.
  • Family history — Your risk for breast cancer is higher if a first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) or multiple family members on either your mother or father’s side of the family have had breast or ovarian cancer.
  • Previous treatment using radiation therapy — Women who had radiation therapy to the chest or breasts before age 30, such as for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, have a higher risk for breast cancer later in life.

The risk factors listed above aren’t things you can change. However, there are other ways you can reduce your risk for breast cancer by taking care of your health, including:

  • Be physically active and maintain a healthy weight. Women who are not physically active or who are overweight have a higher risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Limit your alcohol intake. Studies show that your risk for breast cancer increases with increased alcohol consumption.
  • Talk to your doctor if you take certain hormones. Some forms of hormone replacement therapy and certain birth control pills can raise your risk for breast cancer.

If you have any of these risk factors, such as a strong family history of breast cancer, be sure to talk to your doctor about screening for breast cancer and about ways to lower your risk.

Woman having mammography examHow Can I Be Proactive About My Breast Health?

Everyone’s risk factors are different and each person’s health is unique, but there are general recommendations for women that include early detection steps, such as doing monthly breast self-exams, and scheduling regular clinical breast exams and mammograms.

At any age you can complete a breast self-exam and become familiar with how your breasts look and feel to help you notice any changes, lumps or pain that may be of concern. You can also receive a clinical breast exam at any time, which is done by a doctor or nurse who uses his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has adopted the American Cancer Society breast cancer screening guidelines, which include the following actions:

  • Age 40: Talk with your primary health care provider about the right time to begin screening.
  • By age 45: Begin yearly mammograms.
    • A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast and it is the best way to find breast cancer early when it is easier to treat or before it is big enough to feel.
  • By age 55: Get mammograms every other year or continue annually depending on your risk factors.

What Resources Are Available Through VA?

With women the fastest-growing group of U.S. Veterans,  VA health care is committed to making sure you have the best care available. Have a conversation with your VA primary care provider or call the Women Veterans Program Manager at your local VA. They can connect you with all the services you may need. Find the VA medical center nearest you, or call, text or chat online with the Women Veterans Call Center to enroll in VA health care, find out if you’re eligible, set up an appointment in your area or answer any questions you may have about your health care benefits.

VA offers mammograms on-site at more than 65 VA facilities and conveniently located community facilities when needed. They also have coordinators who track when you’re due for a mammogram, follow up on abnormal results and navigate your screening process.

In addition, VA breast care resources include:

  • Breast ultrasounds and MRI
  • Breast biopsy and surgery
  • Genetic counseling and testing
  • Cancer diagnosis and treatment

For women diagnosed with breast cancer, VA offers full-service treatment that includes imaging, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and other state-of-the-art treatments as needed.

Where Can I Get More Information?

  • The CDC has a lot of great resources for breast cancer, including information about breast cancer in men, what it means to have dense breasts, and where to get screenings in your community.
  • The National Cancer Institute offers a breast cancer risk calculator to help you and your health care team to better understand your risk for developing breast cancer.

Next time you see the pink ribbons waving, remember to be proactive about your own breast health and encourage the women in your life to be too. Knowledge and early screening can save lives!

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