Breast Cancer Risk by Age: The Importance of Regular Mammograms
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), 1 in 8 women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime, with the risk of breast cancer increasing with age. Regular screening mammography is the most reliable way to detect breast cancer early—when the cancer is small and hasn’t spread—before you notice symptoms. Breast cancer at this stage is easier to treat and has a better chance of survival.
Risk of Breast Cancer by Age
Your risk of breast cancer increases as you age. Breast cancer most often occurs in women who are middle-aged or older, with the median age for a breast cancer diagnosis at 62. A much smaller number of women younger than 45 will be diagnosed with breast cancer.
NCI estimates for the risk of developing breast cancer in 10-year age intervals:
- 30: 0.49% or 1 in 204
- 40: 1.55% or 1 in 65
- 50: 2.40% or 1 in 42
- 60: 3.54% or 1 in 28
- 70: 4.09% or 1 in 24
How Common Is Breast Cancer?
Not counting skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women.
The American Cancer Society reports that in 2023, about 297,790 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed and about 43,700 women will die from breast cancer. An estimated 55,720 new cases of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), also called intraductal carcinoma or stage 0 breast cancer, will be diagnosed in 2023.
Other Breast Cancer Risk Factors
In addition to getting older, there are other breast cancer risk factors to keep in mind. Recognizing and accepting the factors you cannot change lets you better focus on the factors you can change.
Breast cancer risk factors you can’t change include:
- Being female
- Exposure to the estrogen-like drug diethylstilbestrol (DES)
- Family history of breast or ovarian cancer
- Genetic mutations, such as those on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes
- Going through menopause later, typically after age 55
- Having dense breast tissue
- Personal history of breast cancer
- Radiation treatment to the chest or breasts before age 30
- Starting menstrual periods early, especially before age 12
These risk factors can increase your chances of getting breast cancer, but having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean you are certain to get the disease.
Lifestyle breast cancer risk factors you can change include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Drinking alcohol
- Having a sedentary lifestyle
- Taking menopausal hormone therapy
Other lifestyle factors that may increase breast cancer risk include smoking, exposure to cancer-causing chemicals and changes in hormones due to night shift working.
Breast Cancer Screening Recommendations by Age Group and Risk Level
Screening recommendation guidelines depend on your age and if you are considered average risk or high risk.
You are considered at average risk of breast cancer if you don’t have a personal or family history of breast cancer or a genetic mutation that increases the breast cancer risk, or you haven’t had radiation therapy before age 30.
The American Cancer Society makes the following screening recommendations for women at average risk:
- Between 40 and 44—have the option to get a yearly mammogram
- From 45 to 50—get a yearly mammogram
- 55 and older—can choose to continue getting screened yearly, or switch to a mammogram every other year
Screening should continue every year or every other year as long as you are in good health and your life expectancy exceeds 10 years.
You are considered high risk if you have a known gene mutation, have a first-degree relative (sister, mother or daughter) diagnosed with breast cancer or have had radiation treatment to the chest before age 30.
Screening recommendations for those at high risk:
- Women at high risk for breast cancer should get a breast MRI and a mammogram every year, beginning at age 30.
Though mammography can find breast cancer early when the chances for effective treatment and long-term survival are highest, there are risks each woman should consider based on her specific situation.
These risks include:
- False-positive results
- Overdiagnosis and overtreatment
- False-negative results
- Radiation exposure
Breast Cancer Screening Tests
A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray of the breast that helps find breast cancer at an early stage in women who have no signs or symptoms of the disease, when treatment has the highest chance of success. Mammograms are considered the best way to find breast cancer for most women scheduling screenings. A diagnostic mammogram is a type of mammogram used to check for breast cancer after signs of the disease have been found.
- 2D Mammograms – A 2D mammogram compresses the breast between plates to spread the breast tissue apart. The machine then takes an X-ray from the top and the side of each breast, resulting in four X-ray images of the breast.
- 3D Mammograms – In a 3D mammogram, the machine takes many low-dose X-rays as it moves around the breast. These images are combined into a series of slices so that the radiologist can see the breast tissue more clearly in three dimensions. This can help find smaller masses and distinguish between changes in the breast, especially in women with dense breasts.
In both 2D and 3D mammograms, the radiologist looks for changes in breast tissue, including masses or lumps, calcium deposits, changes in breast structure, and asymmetries in breast size or shape.
2D mammograms can cause women to receive false positives and be required to come back in for a biopsy screening. 3D mammography can lower the chance a woman will have to return for follow-up testing after screening and can also find more breast cancers.
A breast MRI is used together with a mammogram to screen women at high risk for breast cancer. A breast MRI uses magnets and radio waves to take detailed images of the inside of the breast.
Clinical Breast Exam
A clinical breast exam is done by a healthcare professional by hand to check for lumps or other changes in your breasts.
While it’s important to be familiar with how your breasts look and feel so you can be aware of any changes and discuss them with your healthcare provider, there is little evidence that clinical breast exams or breast self-exams help find breast cancer early.
If you would like to get a mammogram screening test, we make it easy to schedule an appointment.
Talk with your healthcare provider about your risks for breast cancer and how often to get screenings. Learn more about mammography services at River’s Edge Hospital & Clinic.
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