Is it possible to minimize your risk from breast cancer? According to a leading expert, the answer is yes!
Dr. Ashley Hendrix, a breast surgical oncologist with Regional One Health Cancer Care, says women can take steps to manage their risk, catch breast cancer early, and seek appropriate treatment if they are diagnosed.
This New Year, learn how to take charge of your breast health and manage your risk for breast cancer.
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime. Is there anything you can do to minimize your risk from the disease?
According to a leading surgical breast oncologist, the answer is yes.
Ashley Hendrix, MD, MBA, FACS sees patients at Regional One Health’s Main Campus and East Campus. She said there are steps patients can take to manage their risk of getting breast cancer and to improve their odds of successful treatment if they are diagnosed.
“When it comes to managing risk factors, it’s not ala carte – think of it as a buffet, and do all of the things you can,” she said. “It’s also important to be aware of your breasts and talk to your provider if anything changes, and to be vigilant about getting your screening mammogram.”
While being female, getting older, and having a family history of breast cancer unavoidably increase your risk, there are other factors you can control, Dr. Hendrix said.
Maintaining a healthy BMI is one. Women with higher BMIs produce more estrogen, which increases their risk for breast cancer.
Getting regular exercise helps manage BMI, and studies show active women have lower rates of breast cancer than sedentary women regardless of BMI. “We recommend exercising for 30 minutes a day five days a week at minimum,” Dr. Hendrix said. “Try to get both aerobic and anaerobic exercise.”
Decreasing alcohol consumption and quitting smoking are also important steps to reduce risk.
If you plan to have children, pregnancies earlier in life and breastfeeding can offer some protection against a breast cancer diagnosis as well.
Dr. Hendrix said it’s also important to be aware of breast cancer symptoms. That way, if cancer does develop, you can catch it early when it is easier to treat.
Dr. Hendrix encourages women to watch for changes in their breasts like pain, lumps, discharge, and skin changes.
“We should empower everyone to be aware of their bodies,” she said. “I tell patients to be aware of their breasts, because they’re going to notice a change or a difference when it happens. Check your breasts consistently so you will see the change.”
While self-exams and awareness can help patients identify problems, Dr. Hendrix stressed that mammograms are essential for early breast cancer detection.
“The average size of a cancer someone can feel on a breast self-exam is the size of a walnut or a golf ball – and that’s not an early-stage breast cancer,” she said. “That’s why getting your annual mammogram is so important. It can detect cancers that are still very small before they would be felt, and these cancers are often easier to treat.”
Experts say average-risk women should have a screening mammogram every year starting at age 40.
If you’ve been identified as high-risk due to family history or other factors, there are other steps to consider.
“Talk to your doctor about additional screening,” Dr. Hendrix said, noting high-risk women may need to start getting mammograms at a younger age and may need more frequent tests. “You should also ask about genetic screening and counseling.”
Dr. Hendrix sits on the National Comprehensive Cancer Network panel that sets guidelines for which patients qualify for genetic screening. She said genetic screening and counseling can be an excellent option, both in terms of a woman’s own health and that of her family.
Genetic counselors and physicians can help with discussions about additional screening and risk-reduction. Options include surgery like elective mastectomy or ovarian ablation and medications that lower estrogen exposure to the breast tissue.
Dr. Hendrix encourages all patients to be proactive about breast health by talking to their health care provider about how to manage their personal risk factors.
“We can quantify risk through risk assessment models. They aren’t absolute, but we can put some objective numbers behind it,” she said. “Then, look at which risk factors you can change, and think about ways to intervene.”