By: Denise Romano

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women and will be responsible for about a half million deaths this year.

It’s also a silent killer: aside from genetics, little is known about what causes breast cancer in women younger than 45. So it’s important for all women to screen themselves, no matter what the age.

The importance of screening is especially prevalent in the southern states. According to the Center for Disease Control, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee and Texas have some of the lowest breast cancer incidence rates in the country, but yet they have the highest death rates. This means that women who are diagnosed probably do not receive proper treatment to fight the disease, due to lack of knowledge, resources or access to resources.

That’s why every woman over the age of 18 should be screening themselves for breast cancer by checking their own breasts for lumps, changes in size or shape of the breast, or any other changes in the breasts or underarm. Any changes should be reported to a doctor.

Since most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 and older, mammographies are recommended for women aged 50 to 74 about every two years. The Center for Disease Control recommends that women aged 40 to 49 talk to their doctor about scheduling a mammography. Those with a history of breast cancer in the family will most likely qualify for an early screening. But how can the new cases of breast cancer in the U.S. found in women under 45 — which make up 11 percent of diagnoses — be prevented?

For instance, take a 34-year-old, seemingly healthy woman, who complained of severe back pain. She visited her doctor, who prescribed physical therapy. When that was not working, she was sent for an MRI. What the test found was news no one wants to hear — it was Stage IV breast cancer, already metastasized to her bones, hence the back pain.

She immediately began chemotherapy. About four months and six rounds later, she is on hormone therapy pills. Scans show that the tumors didn’t grow, but they didn’t shrink either. Although her hair is growing back and she feels fine, she will live life in limbo for the next few months.

What can be done to prevent situations like this? Since her family had no history of breast cancer, there was no way she would get a mammography at age 34.

For starters, if you are a woman under the age of 45, you may be at high risk if:

  • You have close relatives who were diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer (particularly at age 45 or younger)
  • You have changes in certain breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2)
  • You have an Ashkenazi Jewish heritage
  • You were treated with radiation therapy to the breast or chest in childhood or early adulthood
  • You have had breast cancer or other breast health problems such as lobular carcinoma in situ (LSIS), ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), atypical ductal hyperplasia or atypical lobular hyperplasia.

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, a social support system is just as important as treatments. Surround yourself with friends and loved ones. If possible, establish some sort of meal plan so you don’t have to worry about cooking when not feeling well. If physically able, take trips outdoors and get fresh air. Just avoid crowded places such as public transit, since those with cancer tend to be more susceptible to germs due to a lowered immune system. Do activities that you love, whether it be music, reading or knitting. A healthy mind often leads to a healthy body.

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