Ask a Health Care Professional – October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

By Latha Shankar M.D., Medical Director, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month —a good time to make sure you’re up to date on recommended breast screenings, which can help find cancers before they start to cause to symptoms.

How common is breast cancer?

In the United States, breast cancer is the most common cancer, with the exception of skin cancer.   According to the American Cancer Society, 353,510 new breast cancers will be diagnosed in 2023. About 43,700 women will die from breast cancer this year.

Who should be screened?

For women who have no breast symptoms or concerns and who have no family history of breast cancer or other breast cancer risk factors, the American Cancer Society recommends the following:

  • Women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms if they wish to do so.
  • Women ages 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
  • Women 55 and older should either continue yearly screening or switch to mammograms every two years.
  • Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.
  • Women over the age of 75 should talk with their health care provider about whether continuing to get screening is right for them.

Women with a family history, genetic tendency or other risk factor should talk with their provider about additional screenings. Two other groups of women should speak with their physicians about screening as they are at higher risk of breast cancer: African American women tend to be diagnosed at a later stage of cancer and also are more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age and with more aggressive features, and women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are also at higher risk.

Women with any breast symptoms — a lump, nipple discharge, breast pain or a change in the look or shape of the breast — may need different types of tests. These may not be symptoms of breast cancer, but they may require a diagnostic mammogram or ultrasound rather than a screening mammogram.

What are the facts about breast cancer risk factors?

  • Over 70% of women with breast cancer had only two risk factors — being a woman and aging.
  • Over 85% of women with a breast cancer diagnosis did not have a family history of breast cancer.
  • Being overweight or obese after menopause increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Evidence is growing that regular physical activity reduces the risk of breast cancer.
  • Alcohol use has been clearly linked to breast cancer; one drink a day raises the risk by 7% to 10%, while three drinks a day raises the risk by 20%.
  • Women who have not had children or who had their first child after age 30 have a slightly higher breast cancer risk overall.
  • Hormone replacement therapy and birth control pills might increase the risk of breast cancer.
  • Those with a direct family history of breast cancer or genetic mutations are at higher risk.
  • Breast cancer statistics differ for different racial and ethnic groups.

Dispelling myths

  • Even if you don’t have a family history of breast cancer, you can get breast cancer.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight does not eliminate breast cancer.
  • Breast cancer does not always present with a lump.
  • Even with early breast cancer, recurrence can happen so be sure to follow the surveillance protocols offered to you by your provider.

Are there ways to prevent breast cancer?

While there are no sure-fire ways to prevent cancer, you can take steps to minimize your risk of breast cancer. These steps also help reduce your risk of other cancers and medical conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

  • Be physically active.
  • Aim for 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week.
  • Eat whole and healthy foods.
  • If you eat red or processed meats, eat smaller portions.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Limit alcohol consumption. Women should limit their intake to no more than one drink per day.

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If you have a health question that you would like to be considered in Ask a Health Care Professional, please email [email protected]. BCBSNM will select questions that may appear. Questions will not be personally answered. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of BCBSNM. This column is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical care.


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