More women are surviving breast cancer than ever before. New medications and treatments are making a significant impact, but the most important thing a woman can do to reduce her risk of dying from breast cancer is to detect it early.
Early detection reduces opportunities for cancer to spread and often results in less invasive treatments.
The keys to early detection include:
Knowing your risks;
Knowing your breasts;
Getting clinical breast exams;
Getting regular mammograms; and
Knowing your breast density.
Know your risks
Work with your doctor to determine your risk for breast cancer and establish an appropriate screening schedule.
If there is a significant history of breast cancer in your family, you may want to consider genetic testing to determine if you are in a higher risk category. The simple test, which is covered by many insurances, reveals certain genetic markers that may dispose you to the disease. This knowledge can help you consider medical options that may help lower your risks.
Know your breasts
At its earliest stages, breast cancer exhibits few symptoms; the better you know your breasts, the more likely you will be able to detect subtle changes.
Monthly breast self-exam, preferably a few days after your menstrual cycle, helps you become familiar with the look and feel of your breasts, so you can recognize problems. Instructions for breast self-exam are on the American Cancer Society website.
Clinical breast exams
The clinical breast exam, or CBE, is performed by a health care provider as part of your medical check-up beginning at age 20. The medical staff person performing the exam should be trained in clinical breast exam techniques. In addition to visually checking your breasts, the provider carefully feels your breasts and underarms for changes or abnormalities.
When you begin receiving annual mammograms, the CBE becomes an important screening supplement.
The mammogram is a series of low-dose breast X-rays to detect lumps or masses before they can be felt. There's been conflicting information about when to begin getting mammograms and how often they're needed.
Most doctors still recommend that patients with average risk begin having annual mammograms at age 40. Talk to your doctor to assess your screening needs.
Are you dense?
Women with dense breast tissue are at slightly higher risk for developing breast cancer. You can't determine density by touching your breasts.
At your next mammogram, ask your radiologist if your breast tissue is dense and, if so, ask if he or she recommends a follow-up ultrasound study.
Screening ultrasound, in combination with mammogram, is being used more frequently for women with dense breasts because the noninvasive study can often find abnormalities, lumps or cysts that could be masked by the dense tissue on a mammogram.
Help prevent breast cancer by exercising and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and don't skip your early detection steps.
If you don't have insurance or can't afford clinical or imaging screening for breast cancer, there is help available through the state Department of Health's HealthyWoman Program. For more information, call 1-800-215-7494. You also may contact your area breast health center to see if it offers assistance programs.
Branton is the medical director of Susquehanna Health's Kathryn Candor Lundy Breast Health Center at Divine Providence Hospital. She is board certified in surgery.