Assessing your breast cancer risk

Beaufort Memorial Hospital committed to improving the odds for patients predisposed to breast cancer

By Perry Burrus, MD, FACS

Angelina Jolie’s recent revelation that she carries a gene mutation predisposing her to breast cancer has served as a wake-up call for women with a family history of the dreaded disease.

Jolie chose to have a preventative double mastectomy after being diagnosed with BRCA1, a gene mutation that sharply increases a woman’s chances of developing breast and ovarian cancers.

Dr. Perry Burrus, MD
Dr. Perry Burrus, MD

But BRCA1 and the equally dangerous BRCA2 are estimated to cause just 5 percent of breast cancers and about 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers. Only people who are likely to have an inherited mutation based on personal or family history are offered the BRCA gene test.

But even if you’re not a BRCA carrier, you could still be at high risk of developing breast cancer. An alarming number of women with a family history of breast cancer don’t know they are predisposed to the disease. Those that do may not realize there are things they can do to reduce their risk.

At Beaufort Memorial Hospital, we’re developing tools and programs to help women identify their risk for breast cancer so they can be managed and treated locally. Maintaining a relationship with trained specialists who can monitor your breast health over time is key to detecting potential cancers early and starting treatment quickly, if needed.

My partners and I have spent years managing breast surgery patients after surgery. Our goal is to expand that service to include women who have not been diagnosed or treated, but who have been identified as being at high risk of developing breast cancer.

Clinical breast exams and regular mammograms are important, but identifying true risk requires a deeper dive into a patient’s family and medical history and overall lifestyle.

Beaufort Memorial’s Keyserling Cancer Center recently launched a free online risk assessment tool that the hospital promotes widely through its website, social media networks and community events to encourage women to answer questions that will evaluate and rate their risk level. (Visit www.bmhsc.org to take the self-assessment.) The online evaluation offers opportunities for women to proactively manage or weigh their risk based on their assessed level.

Woman identified as high risk through the online assessment will be encouraged to complete a more comprehensive breast cancer risk assessment. If you will like a more in depth assessment, answer “yes” when asked if you would like to be contacted and a breast care coordinator will call  you and set up an appointment or you may call 843-522-5029 and ask to speak to a breast care coordinator.

Those who are identified as having an increased level of risk should discuss the results with a primary care physician or schedule an appointment with a breast care coordinator for further evaluation.

High-risk patients should be monitored more closely than the general population to try to catch cancer at an early stage when it’s much easier to treat. That could involve more frequent mammograms and clinical breast exams, as well as MRIs.

Beaufort Memorial now offers same-day mammogram results at its Women’s Imaging Center and Bluffton Medical Services. For women with a normal screening, that means they can leave the office with peace of mind. Should an abnormality be detected, arrangements can be made immediately for further testing.

Increased surveillance and hormone therapy may also be recommended for women at increased risk. Drugs like Tamoxifen and Evista have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of breast cancer in high-risk patients.

Other recommendations to reduce your risk are:

• Stop smoking.

• Limit your consumption of alcohol. There is no safe amount of alcohol. Even one glass of wine a day can increase your risk slightly, and the risk climbs with each additional drink.

• Exercise. The more, the better. Studies have found that women who do an average of three hours of strenuous exercise a week reduce their risk of breast cancer by 20 percent. But even a small amount of physical activity may be helpful.

• Eat a well-balanced, low-fat diet.

• Control your weight.

A multi-disciplinary team of medical professionals, physicians and nurses from the hospital, the Women’s Imaging Center and Keyserling Cancer Center is developing plans for the comprehensive high-risk program. In the meantime, women who are identified as high risk can rest assured that Beaufort Memorial already has the resources and experts in place to develop a care plan that meets their specific needs.

Dr. Perry Burrus is a board-certified and fellowship-trained general surgeon with Beaufort Memorial Surgical Specialists. Dr. Burrus sees patients both in Beaufort and Beaufort Memorial’s Bluffton Medical Services. He can be reached at (843) 524-8171.

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