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Schizophrenia Appears to Increase Breast Cancer Risk

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A study found that people diagnosed with schizophrenia were 3 times more likely to develop colon cancer and about 50% more likely to develop breast cancer compared to people without schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that can make it hard for a person to think clearly and distinguish what's real from fantasy. People with schizophrenia also might have a hard time managing their emotions, making decisions (even simple ones), and relating to other people. Schizophrenia affects about 1% of all adults. Medications can often control the symptoms of schizophrenia but most people living with this disease will experience some symptoms throughout their life.

Because schizophrenia can affect the choices people make about what to eat and other lifestyle factors such as drinking alcohol and smoking, this study was careful to compare people with similar lifestyles. Like some other mental illnesses, doctors believe that genetic differences affect brain chemistry in people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia. These genetic differences also might explain why some cancers were more likely in people diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Sometimes the challenges of caring for one’s own mental illness or assisting a loved one with serious mental illness can push routine physical check-ups to the back burner. This study makes it clear that physical health care -- including breast health -- needs to go hand in hand with mental health care. Studies show that regular breast self-exams and an annual exam by a doctor improve the chances of detecting cancer early.

Ideally, a breast self-exam should be done every month. If a person diagnosed with schizophrenia can't do a self-exam, a trusted and capable friend or family member could do the exam. If this isn't an option, more frequent breast examinations by a doctor or nurse might be another option. Annual screening mammograms should be done starting at age 40, or younger if the person is at high risk. Some people with schizophrenia can have a hard time getting organized and sticking to a schedule. They might need help scheduling a mammogram and getting to an imaging center. If you have schizophrenia and are managing your health on your own, don’t hesitate to get help from friends, family, and medical professionals if or when you need that help.

Visit the breastcancer.org Screening and Testing section to learn more about where and how to get a mammogram.

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