Know Your Breast Cancer Risk
- Courtney Parker was diagnosed with breast cancer after originally thinking the lump she found was due to nursing.
- According to the American Cancer Society, mastitis is inflammation (swelling) in the breast generally caused by an infection. It is most common when a woman is breastfeeding, but it can happen at other times as well. Symptoms may appear similar to some breast cancer symptoms.
- Signs and symptoms of breast cancer can include a breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue; a change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast; changes to the skin over the breast such as dimpling; and redness or pitting of the skin over your breast like the skin of an orange.
- Risk factors for breast cancer include: being a woman, age, family history, having had a prior biopsy on an abnormal area, radiation exposure, lifetime estrogen exposure, not having a child before age 30 or never having children, obesity, drinking alcohol and lack of exercise.
Parker’s breast cancer journey began in April 2017 when the high school teacher and gymnastics coach noticed “a pea size lump” in her breast during a state championship competition. But being a breastfeeding mother at the time, she didn’t think much of it.Read More
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For treatment, Parker underwent chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy (removal of both breasts) and reconstruction. Sadly, she had issues with her implants and ended up back in the hospital for septic shock – a dramatic drop in blood pressure that can damage the lungs, kidneys, liver and other organs as well as lead to death in severe cases. After that, she began radiation, which “tightened up the reconstruction” and forced her into yet another surgery.
“I have side effects from chemo, heart issues and bone issues, so it’s appointment after appointment, even now,” she said. “It’s hard. I want to be past it and forget about it, but I’m still going to see the doctor. And because of my BRCA status, I had a complete hysterectomy in 2020.
“There’s the fear of it coming back in the lungs, the bones, the brain. Whenever I have a headache or joint pains, it goes straight to my head – what is it?”
But sharing her story has given Parker a sense of purpose and hope through her journey. She wants her experience to motivate other women to advocate for their health.
“I want others to understand their risk of breast cancer, to know about their risk,” she said. “Looking back and thinking about why I didn’t push for a mammogram in May of 2017, I think I just wanted to believe it couldn’t be cancer.
“I wanted to believe it was breastfeeding causing the changes to my breasts. I wanted to believe that breast cancer couldn’t happen to someone who was only 32.”
What Is Mastitis?
Courtney Parker and her doctors figured her breast lump was a case of mastitis or other changes that come with breastfeeding. But what is mastitis, anyway?
According to the American Cancer Society, mastitis is inflammation (swelling) in the breast generally caused by an infection. It is most common when a woman is breastfeeding, but it can happen at other times as well.
Infection can result from a clogged milk duct that doesn’t let milk fully drain from the breast or breaks in the skin of the nipple. Once that infection occurs, white blood cells release substances to fight it, which can lead to swelling and increased blood flow. This, in turn, can lead to mastitis symptoms like a part of a breast that is swollen, painful, red and warm to the touch; fever; a headache or general flu-like symptoms.
Mastitis is not a symptom of breast cancer, but the signs can look similar, which is why new moms may think they are experiencing one or the other. So what are the similar symptoms of breast cancer?
Know the Signs of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer symptoms can appear similar to those of other conditions new moms face. In some rare cases, breast infection symptoms similar to that of mastitis are a sign of inflammatory breast cancer. Overall, make sure you’re addressing any concerning changes to your health because you never know when speaking up about a seemingly benign issue could lead to a very serious diagnosis.
Getting to Know Your Breasts with Self-Exams
Signs and symptoms of breast cancer may include:
- A breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue
- Change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast
- Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling
- A newly inverted nipple
- Peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin
- Redness or pitting of the skin over your breast, like the skin of an orange
It’s important to keep an eye out for these symptoms while remembering that having one or many of them does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer. Regardless, promptly address any symptoms with a doctor, and feel free to seek another opinion if you feel like your concerns were dismissed.
Screening for breast cancer is typically done via mammogram, which looks for lumps in the breast tissue and signs of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), women should begin yearly mammogram screening for this disease at age 45 if they are at average risk for breast cancer. The organization also says those aged 40-44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year, and women age 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year or choose to continue yearly mammograms.
Know Your Risk
The risk of developing breast cancer is unique to every person. With a variety of factors that can increase your risk of developing the disease, we advise our readers to have a comprehensive conversation with their doctors about their individual risk level and corresponding screening recommendations and preventative measures.
Courtney Parker, for example, had a higher risk of developing the disease because of her family history.
“Some people think that breast cancer is only inherited through genes on the mom’s side,” SurvivorNet advisor Dr. Elizabeth Comen said. “But it can also be related to genetic mutations that could be found on the father’s side.”
What Are the Options if You Have a High Risk of Developing Breast Cancer?
Certain genetic mutations inherited from either side of the family can increase a person’s risk of breast cancer. In Parker’s case, she had a high risk level because she carried a BRCA mutation.
BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene 1) and BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene 2) are genes that produce proteins that help repair damaged DNA, according to the National Cancer Institute. Everyone is born with two copies of each of these genes – one copy inherited from each parent. When these tumor suppressor genes have certain changes, or mutations, cancer can develop. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you might want to get tested to see if you carry these mutations since they raise your risk level for breast cancer as well as several other cancers, most notably ovarian cancer.
Major Reduction in Cancer Risk by Following Old Standbys Diet and Exercise
But family history is not the only factor to be concerned with when considering your risk for developing breast cancer. In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Comen outlined several other risk factors including the following:
- Being a woman: Women are at a higher risk for breast cancer, though men can get the disease too.
- Age: “Breast cancer becomes increasingly more common as women age,” Dr. Comen said.
- Having had a prior biopsy on an abnormal area: “There are different markers, that if a woman has had a biopsy, it’s important that she talk to her doctor about whether those markers are lending themselves to an increased risk of breast cancer,” Dr. Comen said. If you’ve had a biopsy that indicated atypical hyperplasia, for example, you are at an increased risk of breast cancer. Atypical hyperplasia isn’t cancer, but it is a precancerous condition that describes an accumulation of abnormal cells in the milk ducts and lobules of the breast.
- Radiation exposure: Cancer survivors who’ve had radiation to their chest are at an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Lifetime estrogen exposure: “About 2/3 of breast cancer are driven by the hormone estrogen,” Dr. Comen said. “So, that means if a woman has had her period at an early age and started to go through puberty at an early age, at seven, eight, nine, and potentially a later age of menopause, means that her lifetime of having had menstrual periods and being exposed to higher levels of estrogen is higher, and therefore her risk of breast cancer is slightly higher.”
- Not having a child before age 30 or never having children
- Drinking alcohol
- Lack of exercise: “While there’s more research to be done in this area, it looks like if a woman is not exercising, she may also increase her risk for breast cancer,” Dr. Comen said.
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