Breast Cancer Prevention & Screening

Knowing your risk of breast cancer and making sure that you get 3D screening mammograms on time are two of the most important things you can do for your breast health.

Women at average risk for breast cancer should begin annual screening mammograms at age 40. You do not need a referral to schedule a mammogram; you can simply use our easy online scheduling form or call the location of your choice.

Women at high risk for breast cancer may need to begin screening earlier or may need different types of screening. Our high-risk breast evaluation program can assess whether you should follow a different screening schedule.

Risk Factors | Prevention | Symptoms | Treatment | Care Locations | Common Questions

Breast cancer risk factors

While the cause of every breast cancer diagnosis is uncertain, there are many factors that can lead to an increased risk of developing the disease. Some of these risk factors are impossible to change, while others can be changed immediately. Additionally, cancer can form in people without any identifiable risk factors. Knowing your risk factors can help you to be aware of your risk and guide lifestyle and health care choices.

Breast cancer risk factors that you might be able to change

  • Alcohol consumption: Women who drink alcohol have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Weight: Especially in post-menopausal women, being overweight could increase your likelihood of developing breast cancer.
  • Physical activity: Recent evidence shows regular physical activity could lessen your risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Estrogen exposure: The more estrogen that you’re exposed to over your lifetime, the more likely you are to develop breast cancer. This means that women who began their menstrual cycles early (before age 11) or had late menopause (after age 55), used hormonal birth control that contained estrogen, or used certain types of menopausal hormone therapy, can be at increased risk of breast cancer. On the other hand, women who give birth to multiple children or breastfeed have a lower risk of breast cancer.

Breast cancer risk factors you can’t change

  • Gender: Breast cancer occurs primarily in women. Less than 1% of cases occur in men.
  • Age: Breast cancer becomes more common as people grow older.
  • Family history: If one of your biological parents, siblings, or children have ever been diagnosed with breast cancer, your chance of being diagnosed is about double. That risk increases if additional close relatives have had breast cancer.
  • Personal history: If you’ve previously had a breast cancer diagnosis, or an ovarian cancer diagnosis, your chances of receiving another diagnosis are increased.
  • Genetics: BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the most well-known genes that can be associated with breast cancer, but we are learning more every day about different genetic mutations that can cause breast cancer.
  • Race or ethnicity: In the U.S., White women have the highest overall risk for breast cancer, but Black women have the highest risk of dying from breast cancer, followed by American Indian/Alaska Native women. Women with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry have a higher chance of having a BRCA gene mutation that can lead to breast cancer.
  • Dense breast tissue: Dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, and this can make it harder to see a tumor on a mammogram. Breast density by itself is also a risk factor for breast cancer. Your mammogram report will tell you if you have dense breasts.
  • Benign proliferative breast disease: Benign breast conditions are not cancer. But benign proliferative breast diseases, in which the cells grow and multiply quickly, are a risk for cancer. Some examples are atypical hyperplasia and lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS).
  • Chest radiation: If you’ve ever received radiation to your chest for any other cancer-related issue, your risk of developing breast cancer could increase. Your risk increases depending on your age at the time of radiation. The younger you were during radiation, the higher your risk of developing breast cancer.
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Know your family history

If you have an increased risk of breast cancer due to your family history or genetics, or want to find out if you do, the Hollings Hereditary Cancer Clinic can help with targeted screenings, genetic counseling and testing, and personalized prevention strategies.

Hereditary Cancer


Breast cancer prevention

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women — but if detected early, the disease can usually be treated successfully. MUSC Hollings Cancer Center is committed to helping you make that detection as early as possible.

Individualized options are available for earlier cancer detection and cancer risk reduction, including lifestyle modification, enhanced clinical screening, MRI screening, chemoprevention, and prophylactic surgery.

3D Mammograms

MUSC Hollings Cancer Center recommends annual mammograms for all average-risk women beginning at age 40. Studies show that routine mammograms reduced a woman’s risk of dying from breast cancer within 10 years of her diagnosis by 41%. With 3D mammography services in downtown Charleston, Mount Pleasant, North Charleston and West Ashley — as well as at MUSC Health locations across the state — we are making it easier than ever for women to schedule their annual mammogram.

What you can expect from a Hollings mammogram:

  • Fellowship-trained radiologists who specialize in breast imaging.
  • Same-day appointments when possible.
  • A relaxing, female-friendly atmosphere.
  • Digital mammography for faster and more accurate readings.
  • A report that includes an assessment of your preliminary lifetime risk of breast cancer.
  • The American College of Radiology has designated MUSC a Comprehensive Breast Imaging Center.

Breast ultrasound

Hollings offers both diagnostic and screening ultrasounds. Your doctor may refer you for a screening ultrasound if you have dense breasts but are not at such high risk that an MRI screening is recommended. The ultrasound is performed in addition to a 3D mammogram.

If a change has been detected on your mammogram, the doctor may refer you for a diagnostic ultrasound, to get a different view of the area.

Ultrasound can also be used to help a doctor visualize the breast tissue when performing a core biopsy.

Breast MRI

Another important tool for detecting breast cancer is a breast MRI, a non-invasive and very sensitive way of detecting cancer using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Recent recommendations from the American Cancer Society suggest that many high-risk women should be screened routinely with breast MRI.

Breast MRI is most effective and convenient when it is done at a center, like MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, that also offers MRI-guided biopsy — that way patients will not have to go to multiple locations and receive repeat studies.

Stereotactic biopsy

A stereotactic biopsy uses a 3D image to guide a needle in the removal of sample tissue from the breast. This approach allows biopsies to be done in the mammography suite instead of the operating room.

Computer-aided diagnosis

This technology double-checks mammograms and highlights suspicious features and abnormalities that might be indicative of cancer.

High-risk breast evaluation program

The Hollings High-Risk Breast Evaluation Program provides advanced screening, detection and treatment of breast cancer to women at high risk for developing the disease.

Genetic counseling

For patients with a family history of cancer, genetic testing can help determine how best to reduce risk. Genetic counseling at Hollings provides patients with a quantitative breast cancer and genetic risk assessment, consultation on the pros and cons of genetic testing as well as the coordination of genetic testing and interpretation of test results. Patients who test positive are then followed in the Hollings Hereditary Cancer Clinic.

Hollings Hereditary Cancer Clinic

For people with a cancer risk gene, this clinic can help organize your follow-up care and minimize your risk. Genetic mutations that may be passed down through families can put you at higher risk for breast cancer. Some of these mutations can cause different types of cancer. For example, a mutation in the CHEK2 gene can increase the risk of colorectal cancer and breast cancer. The Hollings Hereditary Cancer Clinic can help you to understand your genetic risk of cancer and steps that you can take to prevent cancer or find it earlier.