Know the Breast Cancer Risk Factors and Warning Signs

woman and daughter

Although October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, women should be aware of breast cancer risk factors and warning signs year-round.

Photo of Debra Koivunen, MD
Debra Koivunen, MD

Debra Koivunen, MD, an oncologist at MU Health Care, explains risk factors, warning signs and precautionary steps you can take.

How is breast cancer most often discovered?

Most breast cancers are now detected on imaging at a size much smaller than you or your doctor can feel on a breast exam. That’s why it’s so important to talk to your doctor about your family history and other risk factors to determine when you should begin annual screening mammograms.

What are the risk factors?

Your risk goes up if you have a mother, sister or daughter diagnosed with breast cancer. Women with dense breasts are also at a higher risk. If you have a history of breast cancer, you are more likely to get it a second time. Other risk factors include obesity, alcohol, smoking and a lack of physical activity. Your risk goes up as you age. Most breast cancers are diagnosed in women after age 50.

Are self-breast exams recommended?

Some doctors still recommend and teach self-breast exams, but this is no longer listed for average risk women on screening recommendations of most major organizations involved with breast cancer. However, it is never a bad idea for you to be familiar with the look and feel of your own breast tissue and to bring any changes to the attention of your primary care doctor.  

What if you feel a lump?

The timing of seeing your doctor after finding a new lump depends partly on your age. If you are having regular menstrual cycles and find the mass before the menstrual flow starts, you can wait one full cycle to see if the mass disappears. If you are post-menopausal, you should contact your doctor within a few weeks for an exam.

Is breast pain a sign of cancer?

Breast pain is fairly common in women. If it comes and goes, usually coinciding with the menstrual cycle, it is unlikely cancer-related. Sustained breast pain can come from many factors, so you should see a doctor to determine what might be causing the pain.

What are some other signs of breast cancer?

Nipple discharge can be a sign of cancer if it comes from one nipple only, has a clear, pink, bloody, brown or black colored fluid. Other signs of breast cancer include a newly misshapen breast, skin dimpling and nipple retraction. In women who develop inflammatory breast cancer, the breast skin may become thicker and turn pink or red and the pores of the skin will become more visible. However, the most common breast cancers do not cause any changes in skin appearance or texture.   

At what age can age can women stop being screened for breast cancer?

If you are older than 54 and have no genetic or other high risk factors, you can consider reducing your mammogram to every other year. However, many women choose to keep getting annual mammograms. Screenings should continue as long as you are in good health and have a life expectancy longer than 10 years.

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