BHA's CEO Answers Your Breast Cancer Questions
Answers to common questions about breast cancer from people who are newly diagnosed, undergoing treatment, or in recovery.
Women’s health issues are often overlooked, even by women themselves. A recent global survey showed that the pandemic was especially hard on women, in part because women tend to focus more on their loved ones’ health than their own.
The Better Health Advisors team gives healthcare-related presentations, and our most recent talk focused on women’s health. The women in the audience had countless questions about navigating the healthcare system for themselves and their loved ones. As we answered them, I was reminded of how helpful people find it when we talk about healthcare issues in plain English.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Below, I’ve shared answers to the most common questions we hear from people who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, are undergoing treatment, or are in recovery. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2022, about 287,850 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 43,250 women will die from the disease. Chances are, you know someone who has been diagnosed, or you’ve fought breast cancer yourself.
Breast Cancer FAQ
How often should I be screened for breast cancer?
The American Cancer Society recommends that women get yearly mammograms beginning at age 45. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends beginning yearly screenings at age 40. If your family history puts you at a higher risk of getting breast cancer, you may want to start getting tested even earlier. Ask your medical provider for guidance on the best plan for you.
Several relatives have had breast cancer. Should I get genetic testing to see if it’s in my genes?
It’s possible that an abnormal BRCA1, BRCA2, or PALB2 gene is causing the cancer pattern in your family. I recommend making an appointment with a genetic counselor. This type of specialist can help you assess your risk, determine if testing is appropriate, and discuss options for treatment if you are genetically predisposed to cancer.
I was just diagnosed with breast cancer. What do I do now?
Try not to panic. There have been many excellent developments in the treatment of breast cancer. For example, immunotherapy drugs use your body’s immune system to target cancer cells. As you start the process of finding the care that’s right for you, remember to take things one step at a time. Do some research, but don’t believe everything you find on Google. Visit trustworthy health websites such as Mayo Clinic. You may be anxious to know your stage and type of cancer, but these often can’t be determined right away. Additional scans, MRIs, or biopsies may be needed.
How do I determine the best course of treatment?
Speak with both an oncologist and a breast cancer surgeon, and don’t be afraid to get a second or even third opinion. These experts will share their knowledge and make recommendations. There are often multiple treatment options available, and you might be faced with difficult decisions. If you’re unsure what choice is best for you, a health advisor can provide detailed, customized advice based on your medical history and current health. (To learn more about how health advisors provide support throughout the process, read Laura’s story.)
My mother has breast cancer. I don’t live near her, but I want to make sure she’s getting the best possible treatment. What can I do?
We all want the best care for our loved ones. This can be especially challenging when we are far away and feel unable to contribute to their care. For support, connect with local resources in your mother’s area, such as a chapter of the American Cancer Society. If you need a referral for a visiting nurse or home health care, reach out to a social worker or counselor at your mother’s treatment center. A great online resource for learning from the experiences of other patients and caregivers is breastcancer.org.
I’m in cancer treatment, and having trouble managing my daily routine and caring for my family. How can I get more support?
Take care of yourself, and look for ways to delegate some of your tasks. Many of us are used to being caretakers and find it difficult to ask others for help. Friends or family may be unsure what to do, so when someone says, “Let me know if you need anything,” go ahead and be specific. Many friends would be happy to drop off a prepared meal, order takeout for you and your family one night a week, or bring the kids to school while you are recovering.
Make a list of things you need help with, and put one friend in charge of assigning the tasks. If you have limited support, don’t forget your local church and other community groups, which often have volunteers to help with situations like this.
My doctor says I’m now cancer-free. What’s next?
You and your doctor will work together to establish what is called your survivorship plan. This is a personalized care plan to help you remain cancer-free in the future. Breast cancer survivors are often prescribed medications such as Tamoxifen or an Aromatase inhibitor, which are typically taken for five or even ten years. You may have had genetic testing or other diagnostics, such as Oncotype testing, to help determine your risk of recurrence. Use these resources to inform your continuing care needs.
Look for ways to increase your overall wellness, such as reducing your stress level and increasing your physical activity. You may also want to consider working with a nutritionist. Many hospitals have support groups where people share tips on staying healthy.
Still have questions? If you or a loved one is coping with breast cancer — or any other health issue — and you're unsure how to proceed, reach out to a trusted health advisor.