During the month of October, we were surrounded by pamphlets and billboard messages that remind us about breast cancer. I receive frequent questions from women worried about their breast health, both inside and outside of the U.S. This is an exciting time to be a woman as opportunities are available to be informed, to make wise choices and to live a full and productive life.
Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in this country. Each year, more than 211,000 American women will discover that they have breast cancer. It is estimated that 12% of American women will develop the disease and 3.5% will die from it. It seems incredible but it is real. Every three minutes, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, we can wait until the bad news hits us, or we can choose to fight this with grace, courage, and wisdom.
Scientists are working around the clock to study breast cancer to find out more about its causes. We are constantly searching for better ways to prevent, find and treat it. Until the answers are found, each one of us needs to have a plan to find it early when the chance for successful treatment is greatest. From recent results and statistics, treating cancer is more effective than before. It is even better today than it was three or four years ago. It is because women are more informed about breast cancer, and we now manage to recognize the cancer itself on time.
A Four-Part Action Plan
1) Know your risks
- Age - The incidence varies with age, being low in the twenties, gradually increasing and reaching a plateau at the age of 45, then increasing dramatically after 50. Breast cancer is diagnosed in women over 65 years of age 50% of the time, suggesting that ongoing yearly screening is necessary for older women.
- Personal history of breast cancer - If you have history of cancer in one breast, you have higher risk of breast cancer in the other breast.
- Family history of breast cancer – Your risk of breast cancer is higher if your mother, sister, or daughter had breast cancer. The risk is also higher if there is a family member got breast cancer before age 40 or having other relatives (either on mother’s or father’s side of the family) with breast cancer.
- Genetic predisposition – If you carry BRCA1, BRCA2 genes, you are at significant risk to develop breast cancer.
- Exposure to estrogen - Having your first child after age 35, starting your first menstrual period before age 12, going menopause after age 55, childlessness, taking estrogen replacement therapy after menopause can increase your risk.
- Radiation therapy to the chest – as a child or young adult
- Overweight or obese after menopause
- Drinking alcohol - The more alcohol a woman drinks, the greater her risk of breast cancer.
Having risk factors does not mean that an individual will develop cancer, only that there is greater susceptibility. Knowing your risks can allow you to take preventive measures and be monitored by a physician
2) Know your breasts
Plan to examine your breasts the same time every month. You should be familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel. If changes occur, you can report them to your doctor right away. Call your doctor when you have a lump in your breast or underneath your arm, thick or firm tissue in your breasts and under your arm, nipple discharge or tenderness, a nipple pulled back into the breast, itching or skin changes such as redness, scales, dimples or puckers and finally, a change in breast size and shape.
3) Know your doctor
You need to see your doctor for a clinical breast exam. You should have this as part of your regular check up. The doctor can find abnormalities that can be missed during your regular breast self-exam.
Have regular mammograms. These X-ray studies can help detect breast cancer before you or the doctor can feel changes.The American Cancer Society advises you to have yearly mammogram beginning at age 40.
Our chances in 2009 are excellent. We don’t know how to prevent breast cancer, but we do know how to detect it early so our chance for successful treatment options is greatest.
Decide to live well. Put your plan into action right away. Be purposeful, decisive and informed so you can continue to enjoy your health.
Kim Smith, MD, FACOG
Benton Women’s Clinic
Dr. Kim Smith is the newest physician to join the Saline Memorial Hospital medical staff. She has been a practicing OB/GYN for over 15 years. For more information about the women’s services available at SMH, please call (501) 776-6764.