Breast cancer buzz: Learn your risk and new tests

A well-informed patient who knows the facts about breast cancer and keeps up with the latest is one step ahead in the fight against breast cancer. So, check out this quick round up of buzz in the breast cancer world.

Determining your risk for breast cancer

One way to determine whether a woman is at risk for breast cancer is through a risk assessment. A risk assessment is a series of questions about a woman’s habits, her lifestyle, her medical history and the history of breast cancer in her family.

It is recommended that a health care professional perform this assessment routinely with a patient to get a deeper understanding of the patient’s health and to answer any questions that may come up.

Despite health disparities, African-American females are not automatically at high risk for developing breast cancer. However, they are more likely to develop breast cancer than Caucasian women. So, it’s important for women to talk to their family to help decode their own health status.

Dr. Vanessa Cullins, vice president for Medical External Affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, spoke to via telephone interview about how the annual well woman visits [now covered by the Affordable Care Act] can help African-American women keep track of their risk so they can reduce the risk of developing cancer.

“At Planned Parenthood, we see many women under the age of 40. What we recommend is that they have breast self-awareness education, that a risk assessment be done with a trained clinician, and that a clinical breast exam be done annually after a woman turns 40,” Cullins said.

The risk assessment is not a one-time questionnaire but more like a continuous conversation that should be done with a health care provider to keep track of a woman’s health history. Dr. Cullins suggests that a woman talk with her family and see what changes have occurred and relay those changes to her physician.

“If there’s a change in their medical history or the medical history in the family, they need to go through that assessment again,” she explained. “She would have to notify her clinician if someone in her family develops breast or ovarian cancer.”

Is it all in the genes?

Angelina Jolie’s public statement about having a double mastectomy to avoid breast cancer shined a spotlight on a part of the gene pool that may affect a woman’s risk for getting breast cancer. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes in the human body designed to keep breast cells growing and repair cell damage. Occasionally these cells may have mutations that interfere with its regular function. Having abnormal BRCA 1 and 2 genes does not guarantee that a woman will develop breast cancer, but this gene is linked to roughly 10 percent of all breast cancers.

Is it worth it for African-American women to get genetic testing?

Research suggests that African-American women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer at age 35 or younger could possibly have the mutated gene. Dr. Cullins said providers must examine two questions to determine whether or not genetic testing is necessary.

“At the risk assessment, there are two questions that are asked. [One is] have you ever had breast or ovarian cancer? BRCA 1 and 2 are associated with women who have had breast or ovarian cancer before.  The other question is has a blood relative had breast or ovarian cancer?”

That relative can be on the mother or father’s side of the family — both sides are significant, Cullins says.

“If the answer is no to those questions that patient doesn’t need to have that screening done,” she continues.

Although costly, the new health care law requires testing to be covered by health insurance carriers when physicians recommend it.

The next level of digital mammography

Digital Tomosynthesis, also known as 3D mammography, is part of the latest technology used to screen breasts for tumors. During the scan, the machine takes multiple pictures of the breast from various angles as opposed to the top-bottom, left-right angles of traditional mammograms. The study takes less time (approximately 7 seconds) and does not require as much compression of the breast.

Dr. Helen Mrose, owner and director of Bay Radiology in Annapolis, Maryland, said this new technology is impressive.

“It’s a much more detailed look at the breast. Rather than seeing the tissue overlap we can see the tissue in slices, which is more accurate. They are finding 40 to 50 percent more cancers with this technology,” she says.

Digital Tomosynthesis is FDA-approved, but beware: not many health insurance companies cover this test yet.

Candace Y.A. Montague is a freelance health writer based in Washington, DC. She is a regular contributor to, Black AIDS Weekly, and East of the River Magazine, a publication under Capital Community News.