Understanding Breast Cancer Risk

When it Comes to Prevention, Knowledge Is Key

Jackie Dressel
Dressel started getting regular breast screenings earlier than what is typically recommended because of a family history of breast cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month—a time dedicated to increasing awareness of a disease that impacts hundreds of thousands of individuals, as well as their families and friends, each year. In fact, besides skin cancer, it’s the most common cancer among women in the United States— about one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. That’s why having a basic understanding of the factors that may increase your risk for developing breast cancer is so important. The good news is that there’s been appreciable growth in our knowledge about breast cancer, especially in recent years, which has led to remarkable progress in the early detection, treatment and prevention of the disease.

“There is no way to know who will develop breast cancer and who will not. Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that you will definitely develop breast cancer. But knowing what your risks are can help you and your doctor make choices to reduce your risk,” explains Maen Farha, MD, a breast surgeon and medical director of the Breast Center at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital.

“Some risk factors you can control such as making simple lifestyle changes like limiting alcohol, exercising regularly and controlling your weight. But others you can’t,” Dr. Farha notes. “Getting older, having close relatives with breast cancer and having a history of breast disease are all examples of risk factors you can’t control.”

But with today’s advanced diagnostic screening and testing options, individuals who may be at increased risk, such as Jackie Dressel, now have access to tools that can help them make more informed decisions about how to manage their breast health.

“My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 31 and died when she was 36 and both of my grandmothers had breast cancer. So, I was very aware of my risk,” Dressel explains. “My gynecologist knew my family history and was conscientious about screenings. He suggested I see Dr. Farha at the Breast Center for a risk assessment.”

A woman’s risk of breast cancer nearly doubles if she has a first-degree relative, such as a mother or sister, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. The younger the relative is diagnosed, the higher the risk.

Dr. Farha referred her to Emily Kuchinsky, CGC, a genetic counselor with MedStar Health Cancer Network, for genetic testing to determine if she had a mutation that would increase her risk. Though her test was negative, Dr. Farha recommended screenings every six months given her significant family history.

Maen Farha, MD
Maen Farha, MD

Dressel was diligent about her screenings, which involved alternating mammograms and MRIs. In 2012, she got pregnant and had a son. Then, in 2015, one of her mother’s sisters, who was also on a six-month screening cycle, found a lump in her breast between imaging appointments. It had already metastasized and she died.

“I wanted to be here for my son. He was getting older and I was  getting closer to the age when my mom was diagnosed. I couldn’t live in fear anymore,” Dressel explains. She opted to have a preventive double mastectomy, which was performed by Dr. Farha.

Stories like Dressel’s are what inspired MedStar Health Cancer Network to launch the High-Risk Assessment and Cancer Prevention Program. The program focuses on providing information and guidance to those who have an increased risk for developing cancer.

“Women who have a strong family history of breast cancer are encouraged to find a comprehensive breast center like ours, where experienced breast specialists can guide you,” says Dr. Farha. “Our center is accredited by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers (NAPBC), a program of the American College of Surgeons that sets stringent standards for breast cancer care. The high-level expertise and commitment of our multidisciplinary team to providing leading-edge breast care is unmatched.”

MedStar Health Cancer Network provides free clinical breast screenings in our facilities throughout the Baltimore area. For more information or an appointment, call 877-715-HOPE (4673).

Did You Know?

Mammograms, along with clinical breast exams and general breast awareness, are vital for the early detection and successful treatment of breast cancer.

Following are screening guidelines from the American Cancer Society:

Women ages 40 and older:

  • Yearly mammogram
  • Yearly clinical breast exam
  • Monthly breast self-exam

Women ages 20 to 39:

  • Clinical breast exam every three years
  • Monthly breast self-exam

Some women, because of their family history, a genetic tendency or certain other risk factors, should be screened earlier, more often or with additional tests. If you think you may fall into this category, talk with your healthcare provider.

Free breast and cervical screenings are available for women ages 50 and older who live in Baltimore City or County, are uninsured or underinsured, and meet certain income requirements. Call 410-350-2066 to see if you qualify


Coming soon!

This spring, the oncology programs at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital and MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital will be moving into a newly expanded and renovated cancer center on the campus of MedStar Good Samaritan. With this move, the two programs will become part of an integrated cancer program under MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center— MedStar Health’s Center of Excellence for oncology in the Baltimore region. Watch your mailbox for the next issue of Destination: Good Health to learn more.