With the fall season now upon us, it is important to remember that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the US, except for skin cancers. About one in eight (12%) women in the US will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime. Unfortunately, many women with breast cancer do not even know that they have cancer until it is in its advanced stages.
So what can we do to decrease our risk of dying of breast cancer? Early detection via health screenings, such as a mammogram or clinical breast exam, is an important step. Screening examinations can detect breast cancers early, before symptoms occur, which may make it easier to treat the disease. Screening involves getting mammograms, clinical breast exams, and self-breast exams. There are many factors in predicting the chances of survival of a woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer, but finding the cancer as early as possible greatly improves the likelihood that treatment will be effective.
When should women starting screening for breast cancer? The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms for women age 40 and older. A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast that usually involves two pictures of each breast. Mammograms help find lumps or growths that are too small for you or your health care provider to feel when conducting an exam. Additionally, women who are younger than 40 and have had breast cancer or breast problems or have a family history of breast cancer need a mammogram once a year.
A clinical breast examination (CBE) is an examination of your breasts by a health professional, such as a doctor, nurse practitioner, nurse, or doctor’s assistant. Clinical breast exams should be part of a periodic health exam at least every three years for women in their 20s and 30s, and every year for women 40 and over. A breast self-exam (BSE) is an option for women starting in their 20s, and this is something your health care provider can teach you to do. By regularly performing BSEs, you will learn how your breasts normally feel, and you will be able to report any changes in your breasts to your health professional as soon as you find them. Finding a breast change does not mean that there is a cancer, but you should report any changes to your health care provider.
Remember: The most important screening tools we have are mammograms and clinical breast exams. To reduce your risks of dying from breast cancer, you need to follow the guidelines on when to get them. Taking charge of your health now can lead to a healthier tomorrow. Start by getting screened this month in recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Contact Kate Whitney at the Extension office if you have questions about finding resources for a mammogram or clinical breast exam.