“My cancer scare changed my life. I’m grateful for every new, healthy day I have. It has helped me prioritize my life.” -Olivia Newton-John
It’s difficult to imagine a time when October wasn’t filled with pink ribbons and national campaigns aimed at bringing attention to breast cancer. Thankfully, a lot has changed, but issues regarding breast health aren’t isolated to one month out of the year. There are many things people need to know about breast health, so here are some to keep in mind.
1. Start Your Self-Examination Routine Now
No matter what age you are, learn how to perform a monthly self-examination … and then do it consistently. Breast cancer “accounts for more than 40% of all cancer in women”under 40. That’s an eye opening statistic and a good reason to start paying attention to your breasts when you’re young. The truth is, you know your body better than anyone else, so make time every month (right after your menstrual cycle is finished, if you still have one) to examine your breasts. You can do this while lying down with your arm above your head or even in the shower. The key is to learn what your breasts feel like, so you can identify any changes. Want a better statistic than the one above? “Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump.
2. Learn Your Family History
As sad as it is to say, most people don’t learn their family’s medical history until a crisis strikes. That’s normal. After all, these conversations are intimate and can be uncomfortable. On the upside, though, having an accurate understanding of your risk factors will help you and your doctor take appropriate action from the beginning. If possible, find out if anyone in your family has had breast cancer, no matter what age. When it comes time for a mammogram, or if you find a suspicious lump, you’ll have a detailed record to present to your doctor. Note: If you’ve been on hormone replacement therapy to control menopausal symptoms, your cancer risk may be elevated as well.
3. Consider Genetic Testing If You’re At High Risk
In recent years, news about a genetic mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene has made headlines, and many women have understandably sought additional testing. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s important to note that “having a BRCA gene mutation is uncommon. Inherited BRCA gene mutations are responsible for about 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers and about 15 percent of ovarian cancers.” Once again, it’s important to have an open dialogue with your physician, so he or she can help you make the most informed medical decision possible.
4. Get Your Squish On
When it comes to medical tests, mammograms aren’t exactly the most comfortable. The discomfort and inconvenience, however, are offset by the early benefits of detecting cancerous growths that you may not be able to feel. In 2016, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Forcerecommended biennial mammograms for women over 50. Individual medical history and risk factors should always be considered, though, so talk with your physician regarding testing that meets your needs.
5. Read and Ask Questions about Your Results
If you’ve followed all the guidelines and had your yearly examinations, this last piece of advice may seem unnecessary. Some doctors mail out patient results with little more than noting the most important aspect of a test: the all clear. Instead of passively assuming that you need to do nothing further, contact your doctor and ask for a thorough explanation of anything you don’t easily understand. Mammograms, for instance, often include notes regarding breast density, which can make it difficult for the X-ray to see through. If this is mentioned in your report, ask what it means and find out if you need an additional test.
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Ultimately, breast health is just another aspect of living an informed life. While the unthinkable still happens, the medical community has made great strides in fighting cancer. Make an appointment with your physician to discuss your options then follow through consistently. It’s your life, after all.
To your continued health,