Get the Facts about Breast Cancer

October 12, 2023
• During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a Needham expert talks about risk factors and prevention.

October is marked by a wave of pink ribbons on the football field, at charity walks and in store windows, all in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. At Needham’s BreastCare Center, part of Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham, those 31 days mean more than flooding the town in pink.

Besides raising awareness around breast health, Co-director Ranjna Sharma said the center aims to inform the community about their services and encourage residents to take action. When patients come in for mammograms this month, they can take home a postcard to send to a loved one or friend to remind them to get their screening, Sharma said.

“It’s something that we’re going to try to empower patients to help take care of their families and loved ones in their own lives as well,” Sharma said.

Breast cancer is by far the most frequently diagnosed cancer in the United States, with about 240,000 new cases annually, according to 2020 data provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 2,800 men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

Dr. Ranjna Sharma co-directs the BreastCare Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham. (Courtesy Beth Israel Lahey Health)

The BreastCare Center offers clinical evaluation, imaging, diagnosis and treatment, working alongside the Beth Israel Deaconess Cancer Center.

While recommendations vary between hospitals, Sharma said their own guidelines dictate patients should meet with a family physician or gynecologist sometime in their 20s and 30s for a breast cancer risk assessment. Family history, personal history, genetic mutations, prior radiation therapy and other breast issues may play a role in obtaining the disease, Sharma said.

The average woman should start getting annual mammograms at 40 years old, Sharma said. Those who are perceived as “higher risk” may need to visit the BreastCare Center or other breast specialists in their 30s, she said. When a woman’s first-degree relative — such as a mother or sister — is diagnosed with breast cancer, her own screening should start when she’s 10 years younger than the relative at her age of diagnosis, according to the BreastCare Center website.

Despite certain contributing factors, Sharma said “there’s not one definitive reason” people develop breast cancer. Current research is examining external influences, like environment and diet, she added.

“We do know that there are a small percentage of patients that do have genetic susceptibility, but that’s less than 10% of all women that are diagnosed with breast cancer,” Sharma said. “So for the other 90-plus percentage of patients, it’s not known. We call that sporadic, meaning we don’t know why it’s caused.”

Breast self-exams have “never been shown to improve survival,” Sharma said, but she and other national agencies recommend knowing your own breasts in order to recognize changes and bring them up to a physician. Women should choose a time once a month, preferably a few days after their menstrual cycle starts, to check themselves while standing and laying down.

“What patients should be looking for are masses, skin changes, nipple retraction, nipple discharge or anything that is new to them on their own breast exam from previous examinations,” Sharma said.

Treatment varies depending on the type of breast cancer and its progression.

With most cancers, early detection is key, and with a plethora of clinics across the Greater Boston area, Sharma said there’s no shortage of medical professionals. She urges women and men with any concerns to meet with their primary care doctor or obstetrician-gynecologist.

“If we can identify a tumor or a site of atypical cells early, we can help the patient deal with it at a point where the treatment options are so much greater than they may be if something becomes more advanced,” Sharma said. “It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. If patients are overdue for imaging, come in and get your imaging. If there is a new clinical concern that you have on self-exam, or if you know a doctor that you’ve been seeing as identified something, just make sure to get that worked up so that we can take good care of you.”

The hospital’s Outpatient Clinical Center will host a discussion with a group of local doctors and health experts, Sharma included, to talk about breast health, self-exams and imaging, as well as risk reduction and the role of nutrition and exercise on Nov. 8 from 5-7 p.m.

The Needham Channel News first ran a profile of Dr. Sharma last October, when she took on her role at the hospital. You can watch that story here.

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