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Breast Cancer Awareness: Know Yourself

September 29, 2015 at 6:53 pm

According to the World Health Organization, breast cancer is by far the most common cancer in women around the world. In the United States alone, 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in her life, with 292,130 new cases and 40,290 fatalities projected this year. Men also run a risk of developing breast cancer. In the United States, 1 in 1,000 men will develop breast cancer in his life, with 2,350 new cases and 430 fatalities projected this year.

What causes breast cancer?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There is no definitive cause of breast cancer. Take two sisters for example – one develops breast cancer and one does not. Why? We don’t know. Although the exact causes are unknown and rarely will a doctor be able to tell you exactly what happened, there are risk factors involved in its development. Risk factors are conditions or habits, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, genetics, and family history that affect your chance of developing cancer. The National Cancer Institute provides a comprehensive list of factors that increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

Remember, having a risk factor, or multiple risk factors, doesn’t mean you will develop breast cancer – and having no risk factors doesn’t mean you will never develop breast cancer. Even after developing breast cancer, it’s hard to determine which risk factors affected its development and how much these factors actually contributed.

So… what can I do?
Living a healthy lifestyle is a great start to preventing breast cancer; but when this isn’t enough, detecting it in its earliest stages and taking immediate action is how you win the fight. With early detection and treatments, most people who have been diagnosed will continue to live normal lives.

Jeff Simons, an attorney from New York City, tells us the story of his mother’s fight with breast cancer.

“After a routine mammogram in 2001, her doctor detected one, small lump in her breast, putting her in the early stages of breast cancer. The treatment was a lumpectomy – or removal of the tumor. Going against her doctor’s and family’s advice, she waited seven years before returning to the doctor due to severe pain in her chest. Over the years, the lump had grown slightly larger than a golf ball. The treatment now was a radical mastectomy – or removal of one breast. She opted for the surgery, but unfortunately, it was too late. The cancer had already metastasized (spread) to other parts of her body such as her lymph nodes, where it could not be removed. To try and slow the cancer from further spreading, she did a series of radiation treatments. These treatments coupled with various medications gave her three more painful years before the cancer finally took her life. If my mom had taken immediate action when the cancer was first detected, she would still be alive today. Get an annual mammogram. Don’t wait to get treatment. It’s a matter of life and death.”

Breast self-exams, identifying signs and symptoms, clinical breast exams, mammograms, healthy living, and creating an early detection plan are also  weapons in the fight against breast cancer.

  • Breast self-exams. You should be performing breast self-exams at least once a month. Breasts are by nature lumpy. They are made up of firm and soft tissue that, together, create an uneven terrain. Fortunately, breasts are also rather symmetrical, in that if you have a lump on the bottom of your right breast, you will most likely have a matching lump on the bottom of your left breast. Get familiar with how your breasts look and feel so you can more easily detect changes that may occur. If you feel an abnormality, contact your healthcare professional immediately to schedule an appointment. Don’t know what you’re doing? The National Breast Cancer Foundation offers a complete guide to how, when, and where you should perform a breast self-exam.
  • Signs and symptoms. It’s important that both men and women are familiar with the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. It’s also important to be aware that if you do have symptoms, you do not automatically have breast cancer. The best way to identify signs and symptoms early is through breast self-exams. The National Breast Cancer Foundation describes in detail the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.
  • Clinical breast exam. Performing breast self-exams are crucial in the early detection of abnormalities; but don’t cancel your annual exams quite yet. You should be getting a clinical breast exam at least once a year. A clinical breast exam can be performed by your family physician or gynecologist during an annual physical or exam. The difference between a self-exam and a clinical-exam is the latter is performed by a healthcare professional trained to recognize and identify abnormalities and he or she may notice something you missed. The National Breast Cancer Foundation offers what to expect during a clinical breast exam.
  • Mammogram. Self breast exams and clinical breast exams are NOT done in place of mammograms, which is the only true way to determine whether you have breast cancer. A mammogram is an x-ray that creates an image of your breast tissue, often identifying abnormalities that may have been missed during a breast self-exam or even a clinical breast exam.  As recommended by the American Cancer Society, women age 40 and older should have a mammogram every year and should continue to do so for as long as they are in good health.
  • Healthy lifestyle. Adopting a healthy lifestyle includes maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, eating fresh fruits and veggies, managing your stress, not smoking, and limiting the amount of alcohol you consume. By doing these things, you can reduce your chances of developing breast cancer. Leading a healthy lifestyle can also lower your chances of developing heart disease, high cholesterol, liver disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and high blood pressure – just to name a few.
  • Early detection plan. An early detection plan will help you keep up with all of the above, gives you a place to document your results, and plans ahead for future appointments and tasks. The best way to prevent breast cancer is to have a plan! You have many options when choosing an early detection plan, so choose the one that best fits you. The National Breast Cancer Foundation has an online early detection plan you can sign up for. This is a web based plan that is offered in the Apple app store, online, or on Google Play. If you don’t have a cell phone or computer, you can always create an early detection plan in a journal or notebook. Your plan should include:
  • Your healthcare provider’s information (name, phone #, address, hours, etc)
  • A schedule for your monthly breast self-exams, including results
  • A schedule for your annual clinical breast exams, including results
  • A schedule for your annual mammograms, including results

A healthy and happy lifestyle coupled with an early detection plan is a great start to reducing your chances of developing breast cancer. Stay in touch with your doctor, read up on current news regarding breast cancer, and spread the word of prevention to your family and friends. The more you know, the better!

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