Knowing Your Breast Cancer Risk

11:02 AM, Dec 29, 2011   |    comments
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WASHINGTON DC (WUSA) - This year brought about many contradictory studies on the benefits of early detection for breast cancer. So knowing your personal cancer risk can help you and your doctor decide when you should start getting mammograms and if you should do self breast exams.

Claudia Gilmore is 24-years-old and didn't just want to survive breast cancer, she wanted to pre-vive a cancer diagnosis. Because her grandmother and father carried the breast cancer gene mutation, she knew her risk was high so she had a prophylactic mastectomy.

"I just can't believe it, I did it. I reduced my risk by 90% it was such a surreal moment," Claudia says.

On the other hand Debbie Fornwalt had no family history and thought her personal risk was average so she had annual mammograms. She found a cancerous lump through a breast self exam.

Debbie says, "They say look for a marble or a lump mine actually felt like a piece of clothesline rope it was about this long and about this wide."

Doing a breast self exam helped Debbie find her cancer at an early stage. But in 2011, women continue to get mixed messages, seemingly on a daily basis; about when and how often to have screening mammograms and if breast self exams were even worthwhile.

Dutch researchers concluded that regular mammograms can cut a woman's risk of dying in half. But another study from Canada says asymptomatic women should avoid routine screening until after age 50 and then only every 2 to 3 years. That same study said women shouldn't bother doing breast self exams or routine clinical exams. Women between 50 to 69 with an average risk and women aged 70 to 74 their timetable for routine screening with mammography can be every two to three years. Some critics say the guidelines could cost women their lives.

Cancer specialist Dr. Sara Sukumar, of the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins finds fault with the directive on self breast exams.

"I do believe that breast self exams should be a part of a woman's routine because she knows her body best," Dr. Sukumar says.

But Dr. Sukumar does agree with the reasoning behind the mammography recommendations under very specific conditions.

"For those women who are at high risk family history of breast cancer, they've discovered BRCA 1and 2 in the family, the guidelines need to be quite different. But for the public at large, 2 to 3 years should be quite sufficient to discover new breast cancers," Dr. Sukumar says.

Before making any decision on how or when to screen, every woman should resolve in 2012 to learn her own individual risk for breast cancer. Make that appointment now to have a serious discussion with your primary care doctor or gynecologist.

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