According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Given these statistics, it’s no wonder practically every single one of us has been touched by breast cancer in one way or another — maybe we ourselves are survivors, or maybe we have lost a friend or loved one to the battle. Most of us can probably name at least one person we know who is deep in the trenches at this very moment. But here is the good news: with early detection and treatment, you — and your loved ones — can greatly improve your chance of survival. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And as women first and foremost, we felt this discussion was too important to ignore.
Truth: Early Detection Saves Lives.
What is early detection? Early detection means finding the cancer before it spreads to other parts of the body. Unfortunately, breast cancer cannot be completely prevented — but catching it early provides the greatest opportunity for successful treatment and recovery. There are three steps you should take to ensure early detection success.
1. Know your boobs.
Become familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel. This will help you identify any changes — you should always discuss these with your healthcare provider. If you find a lump, don’t panic! Take a deep breath, and schedule an appointment with your doctor. According to the NBCF, 8 out of 10 lumps are not cancerous.
Changes to look for include:
- a lump or thickening in or near the breast — this could also occur in the underarm area
- a change in the size or the shape of the breast
- dimpling or puckering in the skin of the breast
- a nipple turned inward into the breast
- discharge from the nipple
- scaly, red, or swollen skin on the breast, nipple, or areola
Any one of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you do (or do not) have cancer — but you should definitely consult your physician, and promptly.
2. Don’t skip your regular well woman exam!
Women should visit their family physician or gynecologist every year for a well woman exam. This exam will include a routine pelvic exam and pap smear, as well as a brief breast exam to check for abnormalities. This is a great opportunity to chat with your doctor about your breast health. He or she will probably be able to tell you how frequently you, as an individual, should perform these early detection steps.
3. If you’re 40 years or older, an annual mammogram is a MUST.
Did you know? Breast cancer in its earliest stages doesn’t usually cause symptoms. The NBCF recommends that women ages 40 and older get a mammogram (X-ray) every year. Mammograms can detect cancer or other problems before a lump becomes large enough to be detectable to the touch. Not to mention, mammograms are considered safe, quick, and relatively painless. So why wouldn’t you want one? Free or low-cost mammograms are available to low-income, uninsured women. The National Mammography Program, The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, and The National Cancer Institute are great resources.
Leading a healthy lifestyle can also help reduce your risk for certain cancers.
The NBCF recommends:
- Eating five servings or more of fruits and vegetables each day.
- Getting regular exercise.
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
- Limiting alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day.
- Avoiding (or quitting) smoking.
Good news! Breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast cancer, especially in premenopausal women. We say, nurse on, mamas!
According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, in a pooled analysis of date from 47 studies, mothers who breastfed for a lifetime total (combined duration of breastfeeding for all children) of one year were slightly less likely to get breast cancer than those who never breastfed. The same study showed that mothers who breastfed for a lifetime total of two years got about twice the benefit of those who breastfed for one year. Mothers who breastfed for more than two years, got even more benefit. Although data is limited, breastfeeding for less than one year may also modestly lower breast cancer risk.