Determining your breast cancer risk


Commentary by Patricia Kennedy, MD

October means lots of pink ribbon sightings in observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For all women, breast cancer risks increases with age. That’s why it’s important to schedule annual mammograms beginning at age 40 – earlier if you have a family history of the disease. Yearly mammograms are one of the best ways to identify breast cancer in the earliest stages when it’s most treatable and often curable.

Women frequently ask the difference between “screening” and “diagnostic” mammograms. A “screening” mammogram is scheduled when a woman is experiencing no problems or concerns with her breasts. “Diagnostic” mammograms are completed when a woman has noticed a lump or change in the breast. If you suspect a problem, contact your primary care doctor or gynecologist first before scheduling an appointment with a breast imaging center. Your doctor will contact the center to order a diagnostic mammogram. Radiologists evaluate diagnostic mammograms differently by focusing more specifically on the area of the breast in question. Both screening and diagnostic mammograms are thorough exams – they are just evaluated in different ways.

Understanding your personal risk for breast cancer becomes increasingly important as you get older. A new Breast Cancer Risk Screening program at Indiana University Health North Hospital helps women determine their breast cancer risks. The computer-based screening program is easy, takes less than five minutes and is available free of charge to any woman who has a screening mammogram at IU Health North Hospital. To complete the screening, women answer a few basic questions about their breasts and reproductive health, including family history, age at first menstrual period, whether they have delivered children (if so, at what age) and any history of breast procedures, such as breast biopsy.

Through this initial screening, women learn if they are at average risk or potentially increased risk of developing breast cancer. Those women found to be at increased risk will be contacted by a nurse practitioner to schedule a full risk assessment. Recommendations for women with increased risks may include genetic testing, a breast MRI or consultation with breast care specialists to determine the best course of action.

Patricia Kennedy, MD, Medical Director, Breast Care, Indiana University Health North Hospital, specializes in breast surgery. She is a guest columnist located at Breast Care at IU Health North Hospital, 11725 N. Illinois St., Ste. 545, in Carmel. She can be reached by calling the office at 317.688.5155.

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