The start of the New Year is a great time to resolve to protect your breast health – and that means being aware of risk factors and symptoms and taking advantage of screening options.

Dr. Ashley Hendrix, a breast surgical oncologist with Regional One Health Cancer Care, said better screening and treatment options have led to a reduction in breast cancer deaths.

She encourages women to talk to their health care provider about their screening needs and to seek out the care they need to prevent and treat cancer.

In the year ahead, around 300,000 women in the United States will be given the life-changing news that they have breast cancer. But thanks to early detection and improved treatment, more of them will survive and go on to live full, healthy lives.

Breast surgeon Ashley Hendrix, MD, MBA, FACS held a “Lunch and Learn” titled, “Breast Cancer: How to Fight the Fear” to encourage women to take charge of their health. “Everyone’s afraid of breast cancer and what to do if they have it,” she said. “One way to fight that is by raising awareness. Knowledge fights the fear of the unknown.”

Dr. Hendrix said that means understanding your personal risk for breast cancer, taking advantage of proper screening, and learning about treatment options.

“Mortality from breast cancer has consistently dropped over the last 10 years. There are more diagnoses, but not more deaths,” she said. “That’s because patients are catching it early, before it leaves the breast, and therapies have improved, which all lead to an increase in survivors.”

Successful outcomes start with being aware of risk factors and symptoms.

Women are more likely than men to get breast cancer, and risk increases with age. An early start to menopause or menstruation raises risk, as does having a family history of breast cancer.

While those factors are non-modifiable, Dr. Hendrix said others can be managed. “If you can’t change some risk factors, which ones can you change? We think about ways we can intervene.”

“Mortality from breast cancer has consistently dropped over the last 10 years,” says Dr. Ashley Hendrix. “Patients are catching it early, before it leaves the breast, and therapies have improved.”

Having children early in life can lower breast cancer risk, as can breastfeeding.

Perhaps the easiest steps patients can take include exercising, maintaining a healthy body mass index, avoiding excess hormone exposure, and decreasing alcohol consumption.

Dr. Hendrix also encourages patients to be aware of any changes in their breasts such as a lump, discharge, pain, skin changes, etc.

Always talk to your primary care provider about your risk factors and any symptoms so they can counsel you on your screening needs.

In general, average-risk women should start screening mammograms at age 40 every year. High-risk women may need earlier screening, have more frequent screening mammograms, or supplement with breast MRI. Women with symptoms need a diagnostic mammogram.

Dr. Hendrix noted mammograms have improved over the years, helping to find cancers at earlier stages. Regional One Health uses the latest digital 3-D imaging technology to catch breast cancer when it is smaller and in the early stages.

Additional screening is available based on a patient’s unique needs.

Ultrasound may be used in conjunction with mammogram to determine if a lesion is benign or should be biopsied. MRI is used for some high-risk women, but the test is considered invasive since it requires contrast and can also lead to false positives.

Finally, genetic screening is appropriate for some patients. Dr. Hendrix, who is a member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network panel that establishes guidelines for genetic screening, said determinations are based on a detailed examination of a patient’s family history.

Screening mammograms are the best way to catch breast cancer early, when it hasn’t spread and is easier to treat. Dr. Hendrix encourages women to talk to their doctor about their screening needs and be aware of changes in their breasts.

The goal of risk assessment and screening is to catch breast cancer early.

Dr. Hendrix said patients with small, early-stage cancers have more control over their treatment options. As a breast surgical oncologist, she can help these patients determine whether breast conservation therapy or a mastectomy is their best option. A mastectomy is removal of the entire breast, while conservation therapy removes the cancerous tissue and some surrounding tissue.

Patients often require radiation as well, but women with early-stage cancers are more likely to avoid hormone therapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. “The earlier you catch it, you may not need as much therapy to help treat it and prevent it from coming back,” Dr. Hendrix said.

Outcomes are also much better when breast cancer is caught early.

For localized disease, which is just in the breast, the five-year survival rate is 99.3 percent. When cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate is 86.3 percent, according to the SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) database.

“Breast cancer treatment has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades,” Dr. Hendrix said. “Breast cancer may be the most common cancer for women, but it’s not the one women die from the most. Thanks to screening and better treatment options, there’s a lot more hope.”

Dr. Hendrix sees patients at Regional One Health’s East Campus, 6555 Quince Road; and Main Campus, 880 Madison Avenue. For appointments with Regional One Health Cancer Care, call 901-515-HOPE (4673).

For walk-in mammograms, visit the East Campus Imaging Center, 6555 Quince Road, first floor. For mammogram appointments at our East Campus or Main Campus, call 877-378-1830.