Besides being known for Halloween, the first full month of fall, and also a day to recognize Christopher Columbus, October is also known as breast cancer awareness month.
It not only is a good time to remind women to get screened for breast cancer, but also an excellent opportunity to clarify many myths that continue to persist among many women I meet in the office as well as community outreach programs I lead.
The lifetime risk of a woman developing breast cancer is one in seven. One common misconception is that breast cancer occurs primarily in women with a family history. In fact, the vast majority of breast cancers occur in women with no family history. The other misconception is that many women feel as they get older that their risk of developing breast cancer decreases. Their risk of breast cancer actually increases.
With increased awareness, thanks in part to the pink ribbons, the annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the breast cancer research stamp, and breast cancer awareness month, you would expect that women would be well informed about breast cancer. You’d think women would get regular mammograms, perform breast self-exams, and have regular clinical exams performed by physicians. An October 2005 article in the New England Journal of Medicine found that in fact mammography was largely responsible for the improvement in breast cancer survival over the past twenty-five years.
Despite this, women are not getting mammograms as suggested. In 2002, only 62 percent of women forty and older reported having a mammogram within the previous year. The number decreased to less than 40 percent in women without insurance. Another study showed that only two-thirds of women forty and older in New Hampshire received mammograms annually or biannually even though 97 percent had health insurance and over half (61 percent) were college educated.
Screening for breast cancer begins by doing a self breast examination monthly. Learn how to perform a breast self exam (BSE) correctly at www.komen.org/bse. To be completely thorough, also get a mammogram if it is indicated for your age group. Often, mammograms detect breast cancer at a much earlier stage and well before a lump is large enough to be felt by yourself or a doctor. Mammograms can also detect growths too deep in the breast to be felt by anyone. However, performing a breast self-exam regularly is equally as important, since some breast cancers cannot be identified by mammography.
Women are recommended to get mammograms annually starting at age forty. Make sure that your mammogram is performed by an accredited facility and the results are interpreted by qualified radiologists. Refer to the FDA Center for Devices and Radiological Health at www.fda.gov/cdrh and look for the mammogram program.
If you feel a lump, or your breast just doesn’t feel right to you, see your doctor right away even if you had a normal mammogram recently. Sometimes growths can occur and you may need another mammogram or other additional tests like an ultrasound.
Newer digital mammograms are on the horizon. Preliminary results have shown that these mammograms may be more effective in detecting tumors in women with dense breasts, who are not menopausal, or are under fifty years of age. And for women who do not fit into these categories, digital mammography was found to be equally as effective as traditional film-based mammograms.
In 2007, the American Cancer Society recommended breast MRIs as another way of screening for breast cancer in women who were considered high risk for developing the disease. (A lifetime risk of 20 percent or higher is considered high risk.) Your doctor has a variety of tools that can predict this risk. One is available from the National Cancer Institute at www.cancer.gov/bcrisktool.
If you are considered high risk, ask your doctor whether a breast MRI is right for you and whether your hospital can perform the test. It may be a while before your local MRI facility will have the appropriate setup and radiologists trained to interpret the breast MRI correctly. The breast MRI is to be used with a mammogram and should not replace mammograms. Women at high risk for breast cancer should consider getting both a mammogram and a breast MRI at age thirty. Women with a risk of 15 to 20 percent should ask their doctor whether a breast MRI is a good idea.
Regardless of whether you use traditional film-based or digital mammograms, if a mammogram is indicated for your age group get it done.
For more additional helpful insider tips you must know to keep well, get the easy to read book – Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely – Making Intelligent Choices in America’s Healthcare System.