While it’s true that most cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women over the age of 40, every young woman needs to know about breast cancer risks and what she should be doing to take care of herself by the age of 25. Thinking about cancer (and your mortality in general) is never a fun thing to do, but the more you understand how simple it is to screen for breast cancer and inform yourself about all the options you’ll have, the less anxiety-inducing the c-word becomes.
According to the Susan G. Komen foundation, “breast cancer is not just one disease, but a group of diseases” and it occurs when cells in the breast divide and start growing. When left untreated, the malignant tumors can spread throughout your body. There’s not a lot you can do to actively prevent cancer. Until scientists learn more about individual risks for cancer, all you can really do is try to lead a healthy lifestyle, go easy on smoking and drinking, and regularly see a health professional.
Here’s the tricky part: Just by being a woman and getting older, you can be at risk for breast cancer. You can also have tons of risk factors — a family history of breast or cervical cancer or even an abnormal mammogram — and not have breast cancer. To make things even more confusing, there are so many benign breast conditions that aren’t cancer. In the name of sleeping easy and staying healthy, here are a few things to know about breast cancer when you’re still in your twenties.
1Talk to your family members.
If you can, get as much dirt about your family history with cancer as you can. Most importantly, ask about the women in the family and how they passed away. Family history is one of the biggest red flags for your risk of cancer, so it’s good to have as many deets about your great aunts and grandmas as possible. A history of breast cancer is not a confirmation that you’ll get it, too, but it’s something your primary care provider should know about.
2Know the difference between a breast exam and a mammogram.
You’ll often hear politicians (even well-meaning ones), say that low-cost health care clinics and Planned Parenthood locations offer mammograms. They don’t — no Planned Parenthood has a mammography machine, and only two thirds of women’s health care clinics (the ones that some legislators say can absorb Planned Parenthood patients if they defund it) have them.
What Planned Parenthood does is provide a clinical breast exam by feeling around your breast for lumps or abnormalities. When they feel something that doesn’t feel right, they’ll most commonly refer a patient to get a mammogram, which is an X-ray that gives a doctor a 3-D image of the inside of your boob and a better look at what the abnormality is.
According to the American Cancer Society, you probably don’t need to get a regular mammogram until you’re 40 years old, but you should be getting regular breast exams from a doctor. That can be hard to do if you don’t have regular health insurance, but places like Planned Parenthood will give you an exam and offer financial assistance to get the mammogram if they find something that’s worth checking out.
3Know your boobs.
You should get to know what’s normal for your boobs. Pay attention to when they get sore or tender around your menstrual cycle. You can also give yourself a breast exam by yourself every month so that you have a good idea of what’s going on there — then if you feel a lump, you’ll have a better idea about how long it’s been there and can report to a doctor. According to the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, 40 percent of breast cancers are diagnosed because a woman felt a lump and told her doctor, so it’s a good idea to get used to this routine.
4Talk to your doctor about birth control.
A study came out in early December that showed a link between hormonal birth control and an increased risk of breast cancer. But do not freak out — this study confirms what doctors have long known: Birth control is safe, but there are increased instances of breast cancer in women who use birth control over the course of their life. The study followed 1.8 million women in Denmark for over a decade and found that for every 100,000 women using hormonal birth control, there were 68 cases of breast cancer annually, as opposed to 55 cases among nonusers.
So there’s not a cause and effect — if you use birth control, that doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to get breast cancer — there’s just a correlation. You should talk to your doctor and decide for yourself what you make of the data and determine which contraception methods you prefer. Every medicine we take comes with some risk that we have to weigh against the benefits.
5Ask your doctor about the BRCA test.
You can get tested for the BRCA1/2 genetic mutation, but there is a lot to consider before doing so. For starters, only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are linked to inherited gene mutations; only half of those are linked to the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, according to the Susan G. Komen foundation.
It’s recommended that you talk to a genetic counselor before getting tested. Experts recommend only considering it if you have a certain risk factors, such as a history of breast cancer before 45 years old in your family or another person in your family has tested positive for the gene mutation. According to the Komen foundation, “There is only a very small chance your family carries a BRCA1/2 mutation if you or a family member is the only person in your family with breast cancer and the breast cancer occurred at an older age.”
It’s really amazing that we know how to test for this gene and use it to prevent cancer, but you should definitely talk to your family and health care provider before going for it. As a young woman, knowing the risks, giving yourself exams, and seeing a doctor on the regular is the best way to prevent breast cancer.