Breast health 101

Know your risk factors

by Emily Koon


October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the ideal time for women of all ages to begin determining their risk for breast cancer. More than 200,000 new cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year. But the good news is that with early diagnosis and treatment, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer patients now is 96 percent.


“To be among that 96 percent, there are a number of steps that even younger women can begin taking,” says Dr. Judith Hopkins, an oncologist with the Derrick L. Davis Forsyth Regional Cancer Center at Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem.


“The first step is finding out what your risk is,” she adds. “Being aware of your risk factors means that you and your physician can form a plan of action to monitor your breast health more closely. If breast cancer does develop, then it can be caught early, and that gives patients the best chance for successful treatment.”


Hopkins recommends looking at the following risk factors and discussing them with your doctor:

  • Age. Are you 60 or older?
  • Family history. Do you have a family history of breast cancer? Specifically, did your mother, sister or grandmother develop the disease before age 40?
  • Race. Caucasian women generally are at a higher risk for breast cancer than Latin American, Asian and African-American women.
  • Reproductive factors. This includes menstruation before age 12, later-onset menopause after age 55 and being older than 35 when you have your first child.
  • Activity level. Being physically inactive or obese increases your risk.

While most of these factors are out of your control, Hopkins says there still are steps you can take to lower your risk. Most importantly, begin getting annual mammograms at 40, or earlier if you’ve been determined to be at a higher risk.


Women of all ages, regardless of their risk factors, also should get into the habit of performing monthly self exams to identify any changes in the breast, such as:

  • A change in how the breast or nipple feels, such as a lump or thickening in the breast or underarm
  • Tenderness in the breast or underarm
  • A change in the appearance of the breast or nipple, such as size or shape; scaly, red or swollen skin; or a nipple that is turned inward
  • Nipple discharge

Simple lifestyle changes can lower the risk for breast cancer and other diseases. These include:

  • Exercising at least 30 minutes daily
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating a healthy, low-fat diet that includes at least five servings of fruit or vegetables each day
  • Avoiding tobacco
  • Limiting alcohol consumption

Another valuable tool in the fight against cancer is genetic counseling if you have a family history of breast cancer. A genetic counselor can help you develop a family health tree to highlight cases of breast cancer that can raise your risk, and a simple blood test can identify possible genetic links to breast cancer if your risk is high enough.


“The important thing to remember is that when it comes to breast cancer, there is no such thing as too much information,” Hopkins says. “If you think you might be at risk, then develop a three-generation family history and discuss your concerns with your doctor.”


For more information on breast cancer and your risk factors, contact the Forsyth Regional Cancer Center at (336) 277-0198 or visit