The words “breast cancer” and “the possibility of breast cancer” are words no one wants to hear. Until there’s a cure, chances are that you or someone you love will experience breast cancer, which is why I  talked to Dr. Abigail Madens, a breast surgical oncologist and general surgeon at Hennepin Healthcare. In Episode 24 of the Healthy Matters Podcast, she shares insights on screening, risks, treatment and outcomes.

“As women, we like to come up with reasons we might not be as high of a risk for breast cancer,” said Dr. Madens. For example, she explains how some women might say their risk is lower because they nursed their children, which may be true, but shouldn’t replace some of the modifiable risks.

“It’s good for people to be aware of the risks. For postmenopausal women, a healthy weight is going to reduce their risk of breast cancer,” she explained. “Exercise is also really important and of course getting your annual mammogram.”

Excessive alcohol consumption – greater than two drinks per day – and diabetes can increase a woman’s breast cancer risk. There are also things women can’t control when it comes to getting breast cancer. Increased breast density is one of them, said Dr. Madens.

“Some women have more fat contained in their breast tissue and others have more breast tissue or breast cells. I think that there’s a couple different reasons why it’s a risk for breast cancer. On a  mammogram, when you have a really dense breast, it just looks like a white breast and you really can’t see masses very well because they’re also white – it’s just a dense breast tissue. And dense breast tissue actually seems to give rise to faster growing, potentially more aggressive cancers.”

In addition to breast density, we can’t control what’s in our genes. Dr. Madens said that genetic risks are more complex now, and that in the past they only tested for two genes: one for breast cancer and one for ovarian cancer syndrome.

“Now we test for 9 genes, and when I have patients that come to me with genetic mutations, I usually take them to a website established through Harvard called Ask 2 Me. You can go in and plug in a woman’s age what kind of cancers they’ve had, what gene mutation they have, and then you can see their cumulative risk.”

Estrogen exposure, atypical biopsies, lumpectomies, mastectomies and more are part of this important discussion with Dr. Madens on Episode 24 of the Healthy Matters Podcast.