Given the whirlwind of responsibilities and other concerns that make up everyday life, the possibility of contracting a deadly or debilitating disease is rarely at the forefront of people’s minds until they are diagnosed or someone they know goes through the experience.
However, becoming aware of health risks and taking the time to get screenings when they are recommended can be critical to detecting a disease like cancer at a stage when it may be easier to treat or manage, says Fairfax Radiological Consultants, a private radiology practice that provides services throughout Fairfax County.
The 20th annual National Women’s Health Week kicked off on May 12 and will conclude on Saturday. The goal is to remind women “to make their health a priority and build positive health habits for life,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health.
“It’s not always easy for women to take care of themselves given all the demands we juggle,” Fairfax Radiological Consultants radiologist and breast imaging specialist Dr. Elise Berman said. “National Women’s Health Week is a time for women to advocate for themselves, just like we do for our families and friends.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death for American women. Aside from some forms of skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer found in women across all races and ethnicities.
Heart disease is responsible for approximately 22 percent of all women’s deaths in the U.S., but research suggests the risk of contracting a heart disease can escalate based on a variety of factors, including age, family history, stress, smoking, dietary habits, and other health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
According to the Office of Women’s Health, coronary artery disease is the most common type of cardiovascular disease. Characterized by a build-up of plaque along arteries that carry blood to the heart, CAD prevents the muscle from getting the blood and oxygen it needs and creates clots that can lead to heart attacks.
Heart failure, heart valve disease, and arrhythmia, or issues related to an irregular heartbeat, are also common heart problems for women.
Some types of heart disease affect women more than men, including some types of chest pain, broken heart syndrome, where part of the heart temporarily enlarges, and cardiac syndrome X, which causes chest pain and coronary artery spasms in people with healthy, unblocked arteries.
In addition to limiting alcohol use, not smoking, getting physical activity, and adopting other health-oriented lifestyle choices, the CDC recommends getting regular screenings to monitor cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels as the best step people can take to lower their risk for heart diseases.
Regular health screenings can also be important for detecting breast cancer, Berman says.
Approximately 12.8 percent of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives, according to the National Cancer Institute, which estimates that the U.S. will have 268,600 new female breast cancer cases and 41,760 deaths in 2019.
Breast cancer also affects men but at much lower rates.
According to the CDC, there are about 237,000 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in women and 2,100 in men every year. About 41,000 women and 450 men in the U.S. die annually from the disease.
The fatality of cancer varies along racial lines with black men facing a 24 percent higher death rate for all cancers than white men and black women facing a 14 percent higher rate than white women, according to the American Cancer Society.
While the overall racial disparity in cancer death rates has been decreasing, the disparities for some cancers, including breast cancer, are increasing, the ACS says in its Cancer Facts and Figures for African Americans 2016-2018 report.
The organization primarily attributes those racial disparities to economic inequality and inequitable access to education, healthcare, housing, employment, and other resources.
“African American women are more likely to die of breast cancer than are white women, and that’s because they don’t get screened as much as white women or as soon as white women do,” Berman said. “…That’s part of a larger healthcare issue where we want to try to make screening available to as many people as possible from whichever community they’re in.”
While a family history of breast cancer may indicate a higher risk of contracting the disease, Berman says she frequently encounters women who believe they are not at risk because their family has no history of breast cancer, noting that 75 percent of women diagnosed do not have an identifiable risk factor.
According to Fairfax Radiological Consultants, women who receive regular mammograms see a reduction of deaths from breast cancer by as much as 30 to 50 percent, since the procedure can detect the cancer before symptoms emerge.
However, medical experts offer conflicting opinions on when women should start undergoing mammograms and how often they should be conducted.
The American Society of Breast Surgeons, Society of Breast Imaging, and American College of Radiology recommend that women with an average risk of breast cancer start yearly screenings at age 40, while suggesting that younger women take a risk assessment to see if they might be at higher-than-average risk of contracting the disease.
By contrast, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends biennial mammograms for women between 50 and 74, stating that decisions to start screening before a woman is 50 should be made on an individual basis.
American Cancer Society guidelines say that women between 45 and 54 should get annual mammograms, while screenings for women between 40 and 44 are optional, and women 55 and older can choose to continue yearly mammograms or switch to getting one every other year as long as they are in good health.
Berman recommends that patients 40 and older receive yearly mammograms, saying that the risk of breast cancer begins to increase at that age.
“We want to find breast cancer early, when it’s most treatable and when the outcome of the patient is the best,” Berman said.