In recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, The Salem News asked Karen Krag, medical oncologist at Massachusetts General North Shore Cancer Center in Danvers, some questions about breast cancer prevention, treatment and screening.
Is breast cancer a worsening problem?
It is an increasing problem. About 200,000 cases have been diagnosed in 2010. It's increasing for a multitude of reasons. First among these are changes in reproductive patterns: Women are having fewer children and having them later. Also, girls are having their periods earlier, which exposes them to cycling hormones longer.
The second thing tied to it is that, 100 years ago, the life expectancy of women was 40 years. Now it's 80 years. Breast cancer in young women is actually not increasing, although those cases are reported often in the news. It occurs almost exclusively in post-menopausal women.
Any other factors?
Breast-feeding plays a role. Very few women exclusively breast-feed. If you exclusively breast-feed, you suppress the menstrual period, and if you do that, you have a decreased risk. So although breast-feeding is increasing, and is becoming more prevalent, it's still at less than 10 percent at 6 months.
Are there things women can do to decrease their risk for getting breast cancer?
We can make an enormous impact. The lifestyle stuff is extraordinarily important. Obesity, drinking — more than five alcoholic drinks a week — and lack of exercise all increase risk. Each of these factors is also independent of the other, so even if you weigh 300 pounds, if you exercise, it will decrease risk.
Who's at risk for breast cancer?
Everybody. All women are at risk.
When should women get mammograms?
Screening should start at 40.
How often should mammograms be performed?
Once a year, and they should continue as long as you're in good health.