Like most cancers, breast cancer is a disease of aging. According to the National Cancer Institute, women 70 years of age and older have a 1 in 24 chance of developing breast cancer. In fact, more than 40% of all breast cancers are diagnosed in women age 65 years or older. As America’s population continues to grow older, the annual number of breast cancer diagnoses are expected to rise.
DID YOU KNOW?
Given that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we thought we’d take a moment to discuss everything you need to know about breast cancer in seniors, including risk factors, warning signs and symptoms, and getting screened.
What Are the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer?
There are several risk factors and warning signs of the disease that you should monitor carefully, as these can contribute to the chance of developing breast cancer. Although risk factors play a role in the development of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, it’s essential to get tested or have regular mammograms since many women (and men) who develop breast cancer have no risk factors.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has published important information about the risk factors for breast cancer. While there are risk factors you cannot change, you can make certain lifestyle changes that make a big difference to your health and risk level.
Risk Factors You Cannot Change
Getting older. The risk for breast cancer increases with age. The majority of cases are diagnosed after the age of 50.
Genetic mutations. Women who have inherited mutations to certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, are at higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Dense breasts. Women who have dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, which can sometimes make it hard to see tumors on a mammogram. This makes women with dense breasts are more likely to get breast cancer.
Family history. A woman’s risk increases if her mother, sister or daughter has had breast cancer. Having a first-degree male relative with breast cancer also raises a woman’s risk.
Risk Factors You Can Change
Not being physically active. Studies show that regular exercise reduces breast cancer risk, especially in women post-menopause. The main question is how much exercise is recommended? Some studies have found that even as little as a couple of hours a week might be helpful, although more seems to be better.
Being overweight or being obese after menopause. Having a high percentage of fat tissue after menopause can raise estrogen levels and increase the chances of getting breast cancer. Women who are overweight also tend to have higher levels of blood insulin. Higher insulin levels have been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer.
Taking hormones. Some forms of hormone replacement therapy (those that include both estrogen and progesterone) taken during menopause can raise the risk for breast cancer when taken for more than five years. Certain brands of birth control pills also have been found to raise a person’s risk.
Drinking alcohol. A person who drinks one drink per day has a small increase in risk, but someone who drinks two to five drinks each day has one and a half times the risk of developing breast cancer as a non-drinker.
What Are the Early Symptoms of Breast Cancer in Seniors? What Are Warning Signs of Breast Cancer?
Although having regular screenings for breast cancer is a key component to healthy aging, mammograms do not detect every breast cancer. This means it is also important for you to know what your breasts normally look and feel like, so you will be aware of any changes in your breasts.
The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. While most lumps on the breast are benign, about 20% are cancerous. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancer, but breast cancers can also be soft, round, tender or even painful.
Don’t forget these lesser-known symptoms of breast cancer:
Nipple discharge. Discharge from the nipple, whether it’s clear or discolored, runny or thick, can be an indication of breast cancer. However, the cause can also be a side effect of other medical issues.
Soreness and swelling. Breast cancer can cause a general swelling or soreness of your breasts. This type of swelling is significant enough to change the size of the breast that is affected, even if one is already a different size than the other. The swelling can affect the whole breast or a part of it, and it can change the overall size and shape of the breast.
Redness and rash. One of the primary effects breast cancer has on the skin is a general redness and/or rash, especially in the area where the cancer cells are affecting the lymph nodes.
Skin dimpling. Skin dimpling occurs when parts of the skin on the breast invert and create a small dimple. This symptom can show where the cancer is present. These dimples can also indicate that the cancer is aggressive.
Soreness and swelling in the underarm. The first area cancerous cells typically travel to after affecting the breast is the lymph nodes in the underarm. Swelling or tenderness in that region can suggest breast cancer is present and has spread from the breasts.
How Do I Get Tested for Breast Cancer?
If you believe you have experienced any of the symptoms listed above, make an appointment to visit your doctor as soon as possible. When making the appointment, clarify the symptoms you have experienced. It is also recommended that older adults get a yearly mammogram screening even if you haven’t shown any symptoms.
Your doctor or health care provider will perform a variety of tests to determine if your symptoms are the result of breast cancer. Some of these tests include:
Mammogram. A mammogram is a type of X-ray of the breasts and is the most common first step in detecting breast cancer. The process starts with the patient standing in front of an X-ray machine and placing the breast on a clear plate. The machine then moves another clear plate on top of your breast, which is flattened with a little bit of pressure. This process can be uncomfortable and often painful for some, but it lasts only a few seconds. The machine takes photos of both breasts from the front and from the side.
The CDC suggests against wearing deodorant, perfume, or any powder the day of the exam, as they can alter the image and result in inaccuracy.
Mammograms are proven to reduce the rate of death from breast cancer. And while there are no strict guidelines for when you should start getting a yearly mammogram, The Breast Center recommends annual mammograms for women starting at 40 years old. If you are unsure when you should start, consult your doctor.
Breast exam. This is a physical exam done by a doctor, who will feel for any lumps, bumps, dimples, skin deformities or other problems. They will also feel the lymph nodes located in the underarms, which is typically the first area that invasive cancer spreads to outside of the breast. Breast exams are typically done in conjunction with mammograms.
Biopsy. A biopsy is the only absolutely reliable way to diagnose breast cancer. It is typically the step that follows previous exams that determined abnormal growth.
During a biopsy, a doctor will extract cells from the area where the cancer is predicted to be. The cells will then be tested for cancer, which will either confirm or disprove the diagnosis. If confirmed, the test results will also show if the cancer is invasive or noninvasive and how far along the cancer has developed.
Comfort and Support at Hawthorn Senior Living
At all Hawthorn Senior Living communities, we spend October creating and spreading awareness of breast cancer, and most importantly, honoring those who have fought it and are fighting it, as well as those who support them.
Our compassionate team of professionals are always available to provide resources and support for all our residents and their families. If you have questions about services or support available, visit SeniorLivingInstyle.com.
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