Answers to common questions about breast cancer and breast health

October 1, 2015 Providence Health Team

One in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and many others will know someone who has breast cancer. Do you know who’s at risk and what women can do to reduce their chances of developing the disease?

Here are answers to common questions about breast cancer that can help all women in their quest to stay healthy.

Is there an optimal time to perform a monthly breast self-exam?

Yes. Young women should perform a breast self-exam seven to 10 days after their period starts. This is when breasts tend to be the least tender and lumpy. Women who are in menopause or older should perform a breast self-exam on the same day every month.

Does hormone replacement therapy (HRT) raise the risk of breast cancer?

Hormone replacement therapy is used to relieve symptoms of menopause. There are two main types: a combination of estrogen and progesterone, and estrogen only. Studies have shown that HRT involving estrogen and progesterone does increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

How often should I see my doctor for a breast exam?

The American Cancer Society recommends:

  • A clinical breast exam every three years for women in their 20s and 30s, and every year for women 40 and over
  • Yearly mammograms for women starting at age 40

Is a lump in your breast a sure sign of breast cancer?

No. A number of conditions can cause breast lumps, including cysts, and eight out of 10 lumps are benign. But don’t ignore changes in your breasts. If you discover a lump or experience nipple discharge, pain, swelling or redness, see your physician for a clinical breast exam.

Does a family history of breast cancer put you at higher risk?

Yes. Having a mother, sister or daughter with breast cancer does raise the risk. But most women who have breast cancer – more than 85 percent – have no family history.

Does exercise reduce the risk of breast cancer?

Most studies indicate that women who are physically active have a lower risk of developing breast cancer than women who are sedentary. Thirty to 60 minutes of daily moderate- to high-intensity physical activity is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer.

Does having the gene mutation BRCA1 or BRCA2 mean you will develop breast cancer?

This gene mutation does not guarantee that you will develop breast cancer, but the risk does go up with BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women with the gene mutation are about five times more likely to develop breast cancer than women without it. They also are at increased risk for ovarian cancer. These women should seek genetic counseling.

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