Why is Knowing Your Family History and Preventative Care Important Steps in the Fight Against Breast Cancer?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and regular screenings and information about family history are key.

breast cancer awareness

October is recognized all over the world as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Dr. Regina Frost, M.D., board-certified OB-GYN with Ascension St. John Hospital, has one very important message for women (and men) who might be worried about their breast cancer status and risk factors: “Get counseled and screened, early and often.” You might feel silly doing those self-checks, but Dr. Frost, who likens it to “trying to find marbles in cottage cheese,” says they’re often the first sign that something is off with the breast health. 

And a cancer diagnosis, or lack of one, can change more quickly than you’d think. “I’ve seen a woman do the self-checks one month, get a screening mammogram that came back negative, and then two months after that, her results had changed. That’s why we recommend that women get screened for breast cancer at least once a year, so that if there is an issue or the potential for one, we can catch it quickly and move forward with treatment,” Dr. Frost says.

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Aside from lumps, symptoms like skin dimpling or redness, or abnormal nipple discharge could indicate an issue. The only way to know for sure is to visit your doctor, which Dr. Frost knows can be a touchy subject when the potential for cancer is involved – and an even touchier one in the Black community.

“It can be taboo to talk about serious health issues, especially for Black families and those of us who don’t trust the doctor’s office. Thankfully, that trend is changing, but it’s so important for the family to be aware and informed of their medical history, not just the patient,” she says. 

Dr. Frost says there are a wide array of screening options available to each woman and her circumstances aside from regular mammograms. All of them have their strengths and weaknesses. The type and frequency of screening depends on the patient’s personal and family history of breast cancer.

If a person is at high risk for breast cancer, MRI is added to the screening protocol in addition to mammograms. Automated Whole Breast Ultrasound (ABUS) is also a newer test that we are now using to help detect breast cancers, especially in women with very dense breasts.

 “Most breast cancers are sporadic and not caused by genetics,” Dr. Frost says. “However, if a first-degree relative, such as a mom or sister, have or had breast cancer, or if there are multiple extended family members on the same side of the family with breast cancer, a woman’s personal risk of breast cancer increases significantly. And a lot of people don’t know men can get breast cancer, too, which raises a red flag with a patient almost immediately.” 

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in women; only lung cancer kills more women each year. The best steps for prevention and early care include getting informed, talking to your family and getting to know your body.

If someone does receive a diagnosis of breast cancer, Dr. Frost wants to make sure it’s understood that in no way is it a death sentence. “No one wants to hear the word ‘cancer.’ But the situation, while serious, often isn’t as hopeless as it seems. There are several effective medical and surgical therapies available, and Ascension offers other supportive resources as well that can help women feel like they aren’t alone in this fight.

Get more health information and find a doctor near you by visiting ascension.org/michigan or calling 866-501-DOCS (3627)

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