Breast cancer is something that happens to other people….. only older women who have family histories of the disease. I don’t need to worry about getting breast cancer or checking myself like all of those other women, right? WRONG! Before you dismiss what seems like yet another article about breast cancer during this October Breast Cancer Awareness month, take a moment to arm yourself with the facts and the latest information. It can save your life. It can save the life of your sister, mother, aunt, best friend, and even that special man in your life. Yes, you heard me right. Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, sexual orientation, family history, or ethnicity, although some of those factors are considerations for increased risks.
At the age of 41, I had my very first mammogram done just a few days ago. I’m anxiously awaiting the results – that pink envelope in the mail that will hopefully tell me that everything is OK…. I hope. While I don’t have a known family history of breast cancer, I learned that 8 out of 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer don’t have a family history. That was rather shocking to me. I always thought I was “safe” and it was impossible for me to get breast cancer. Now, I know that’s not true. The fact is that I’ve had endometriosis since I was a teenager, and to treat the complications, I have taken hormonal treatment for years that increased my risk for breast cancer. If you take birth control pills or other hormonal birth control methods, you likely fall into the same risk category, regardless of age. Also, if you started your menstrual cycle before age 13, you’re also at increased risk. Since I’ve learned so many myths and misinformation over the years, I thought it would be hearful to address some of the most common myths and facts here.
Common Breast Cancer Myths and Facts
MYTH: Only women over 40 are at risk of developing breast cancer and should be checked regularly.
FACT: Women (and men) of any age can develop breast cancer as long as you have breasts. While most insurance companies don’t start paying for routine mammograms to screen for breast cancer until a woman turns 40, women of all ages should routinely perform home breast examinations to ensure there are no concerning changes to the breasts or area around the breasts. The fact is that many more women under age 40 are being diagnosed with breast cancer today, and unfortunately, many of those women don’t catch it until it has progressed because they often believe they’re not at risk. Aside from performing a home self breast exam at least weekly or monthly, your gynecologist should also perform a manual breast exam every year during your routine visit and Pap smear. If your doctor isn’t doing this during your annual exam, request it, because your doctor knows exactly what to feel for and what would be considered normal versus potentially cystic lumpy, yet normal, breast tissue. If you or your doctor feels any area of concern or you experience any symptoms that are indicative of potential breast cancer and you are UNDER age 40, your doctor should immediately order a mammogram. Insurance companies will pay for a mammogram, regardless of age, if your doctor orders it due to symptoms. Don’t postpone this test!
MYTH: Women without a family history of breast cancer (such as mom, grandmother, aunt, etc. that has been diagnosed previously) do not have a risk of developing breast cancer.
FACT: While there are genetic and family links to breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, the fact is that 8 out of 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer do NOT have a family history of the cancer. Shocking!
MYTH: Men can’t get breast cancer.
FACT: Men have breasts too and can develop breast cancer, although it’s not widely publicized and is less common than women. Men should also be aware of the symptoms of breast cancer and routinely perform a manual home breast exam to ensure there are no abnormal findings.
MYTH: Breast cancer is fatal most of the time.
FACT: Depending on your age, you may remember a time when this was true. Thankfully, through continued annual awareness events and fundraisers, researchers have made significant progress in early detection and successful treatment after diagnosis. Breast cancer is one of the only cancers that has almost a 100% cure rate 5 years after diagnosis if it is detected and treated in the initial stage. Early detection and diagnosis is key to successful treatment and long-term remission.
MYTH: I don’t need to perform home breast exams or have annual mammograms. If I have cancer, I will know because I will be really sick and have a lot of symptoms to warn me that something is wrong.
FACT: If you wait to seek medical attention until you “feel sick” and have obvious signs of breast cancer, your chances of successful treatment and long-term survival decrease significantly. If not detected early, the cancer can spread outside the breast and into the lymph nodes, decreasing the odds of survival. There are often no symptoms at all during the early stages of breast cancer, aside from what you may feel or see upon a manual exam. The goal is to diagnose and treat early, before the cancer has a chance to spread into any lymph nodes or beyond the breast tissue.
MYTH: Mammograms are painful and very uncomfortable. They hurt and smush your breasts completely flat like a pancake.
FACT: Mammograms have developed a bad reputation over the years due to our fear / anxiety of the unknown. I admit that I went into mine practically shaking, to the point where I had the technician flustered for a moment. However, there’s no pain at all, and all my anxiety and dread was for nothing. Despite what you may have heard, the machine doesn’t smush your breast hard and flat like a pancake. It is very gentle. For a routine screening, the technician will usually take 4 images, 2 of each side. One image is with the breast flat down and the other is an angular side view to check the back section and lymph node areas of the breast. The technician will make it a very comfortable process. There’s nothing to fear.
Breast Cancer Risk Factors
Most women who fall into one or more of the risk factors for breast cancer never develop cancer while many women who don’t fall into one of the risk factor categories do develop breast cancer. You should be aware of your risks but never dismiss the possibility of a breast cancer diagnosis just because you don’t have 1 or more of the risk factors. Unfortunately, there are many risks factors that you cannot change or do anything about. For example, just the simple fact that most of you reading this article are women is a risk factor that we all share together due to the hormones progesterone and estrogen.
Please visit the American Cancer Society’s website for a complete, extensive list of risk factors. Some are factors that you cannot change while others are lifestyle-related risks that you can minimize or eliminate altogether.
Common Symptoms of Breast Cancer
How to Perform a Home Self Exam
The easiest way to perform an at-home self breast examination is to make it part of your normal routine while showering. It can be done anywhere and any time, but making it part of your normal shower routine is quick and easy to remember…..and very discreet! Aside from examining the tissue on and around the breast, be sure you examine other areas such as the nipple to ensure you’re not experiencing any abnormal discharge or other abnormalities have developed. Don’t forget the armpit area and side of the breasts! This is part of the breast tissue and a common place for lumps to hide. Your lymph nodes are located in that area and can feel like a small pea-sized lump (or larger) if there is an issue. If you find something, try not to jump to the worst conclusion, but contact your physician immediately for an appointment. Oftentimes, lumps and bumps are benign and can be contribute to fibrous tissue of pre-menopausal women. Also, your lymph nodes can swell due to a number of causes such as a bacterial infection or virus…..yes, cancer too, but not it’s not always cancer. The key is to become aware of what’s normal for YOUR breasts so you can recognize when something changes.
Don’t become a statistic because you have the mindset that “this won’t happen to me. It only happens to other people.” Breast cancer survival rates are almost 100% for people who detect the disease in the initial stage. Early detection is critical to a successful outcome.
Don’t think that because you may be 13, 20, or 30 years of age, that breast cancer isn’t something that could ever affect you. Chances are….most people reading this know someone in their life that has been touched by breast cancer or cancer of some type. Encourage your friends, mom, sisters, aunts, and even the men in your life to educate themselves about breast cancer, and challenge each other to perform a home exam at least once a month. It’s easy! Do it while taking a shower and make it part of your normal routine. You may just save your life!
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