Breast cancer and anxiety: Real talk with a doctor

October 20, 2023 Providence Cancer Team

[5 MIN READ]  

In this article:

  • Alison Conlin, M.D., Director of the Breast Cancer Medical Oncology Program at the Providence Breast Care Clinic, talks about important issues surrounding breast cancer.

  • The American Cancer Society recommends that women at average risk for breast cancer talk with their doctor about starting screenings at age 40. 

  • You can lower your risk of developing breast cancer by avoiding tobacco, limiting alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight. 

This is the time of year when pink ribbons are everywhere, signifying support for the fight against breast cancer during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Out of all the different cancers, breast cancer probably receives the most attention. As a result, women — and men — are hyper-aware that when they receive a breast cancer diagnosis, it will change their life. This can, understandably, cause much anxiety related to screenings, follow-ups and preventive treatment. 

We sat down with Alison Conlin, M.D., Director of the Breast Cancer Medical Oncology Program at the Providence Breast Care Clinic, to talk about breast cancer, anxiety and the latest recommendations about screening and genetic testing.  

Breast cancer genes 

While news about genes that cause breast cancer have become more prominent in recent years, they’re actually not all that common. 

“We’re finding a genetic link in only 5% of cancers,” Dr. Conlin said. “Just because you have a family history of breast cancer doesn’t necessarily mean that you probably have the gene. It’s actually really common to have a family history of breast cancer, because more women have breast cancer than any other type of cancer. Chances are, someone has had breast cancer in your family.” 

So, that means you shouldn’t fret if you have breast cancer in your family. Just make sure you stay up to date with your screenings. 

However, Dr. Conlin said, that also means if you don’t have breast cancer in your family, you have nearly as much of a chance of getting the disease as someone who does. 

Get your mammogram 

That leads us to the most important message doctors want to convey this month: Screening mammograms can save lives. 

“A screening mammogram is important because it can identify something so early that you didn’t even know it was an issue for you,” said Dr. Conlin. “When you catch breast cancer early, you have a much better chance of curing it.” 

According to the American Cancer Society, women at average risk for breast cancer should follow the below guidelines for mammogram screening: 

  • Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year. 
  • Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year. 
  • Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live at least 10 more years. 

“It’s important to talk to your doctor about the plan that’s right for you,” Dr. Conlin said. “If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, or if you have tested positive for the breast cancer gene, you may want to start screening earlier.” 

While doctors previously recommended that women regularly perform breast self-exams, recent research has shown that such exams do not provide significant protection against cancer. Still, you should watch for any changes in your breasts. 

“A lot of breast changes are completely normal,” Dr. Conlin said. “You should know your own body. If something seems off to you, talk to your doctor about it. We don’t want to miss anything important.” 

Anxiety and breast cancer 

Of course, more screening can often mean more anxiety. Women and men who have an abnormal screening may become extremely nervous. 

“Just remember that most problems with your breasts are not going to be cancer,” Dr. Conlin said. “I have a lot of empathy in my heart for people who are navigating repeat mammograms or breast biopsies, or who are scared to get a mammogram. It is nerve-wracking, because your mind goes through all the what ifs.” 

While there’s no magic wand that can take away your anxiety if you are undergoing further tests, you should remember that even if you do receive a breast cancer diagnosis, there are many more treatments available than ever before. 

Prevent breast cancer 

Steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer include: 

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight 
  • Eating a healthy diet 
  • Exercising regularly (at least three times per week) 
  • Avoiding tobacco products 
  • Limiting alcohol intake 
  • Limiting the use of hormone replacement therapies 
  • Breastfeeding your children 
  • Scheduling mammograms as recommended by your health care provider 

It’s scary to even think about battling breast cancer. But by taking care of yourself, you can decrease the likelihood that you will get it. 

Contributing Caregiver 

Alison Conlin, M.D., is the Director of the Breast Cancer Medical Oncology Program at the Providence Breast Care Clinic

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Related resources 

Go to the Breast Center for urgent concerns 

Treatments for advanced breast cancer 

Breast cancer study at Providence 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions. 

About the Author

The Providence Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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