By Dr. Melissa Carr, The Women’s Center at Southwest Health
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness about the impact of breast cancer. It is also a reminder about the importance of early detection, education, and the perfect time to talk about routine exams.
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, breast cancer death rates declined 40% from 1989 to 2016 among women. This progress is attributed to improvements in early detection. Early detection includes doing monthly breast self-exams, regular clinical breast exams by a doctor or physician, and mammograms. Many breast cancer symptoms are invisible and not noticeable without a professional screening, but some symptoms can be caught early just by being proactive about your breast health.
Get to know your breasts: Look. Touch. Check.
One of the best ways you can be proactive is simply being familiar with your breasts, so you are more likely to notice any changes.
Look: Take the time to stand in front of a mirror and really look at your breasts. The shape and size of your breasts; color of the skin; and the shape, color, and size of the nipples. Visually examine your breasts with your arms at your side, and then also raise your arms and look at your underarms and collar bone areas.
Touch: Use a firm but smooth touch with the first few finger pads of your hand, keeping your fingers together. Using a circular motion, feel the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side, including the armpit and collarbone area. Just like being familiar with what your breasts look like, you should be familiar with what they feel like. It is also best to do a self-exam both while laying down, and while you are standing. Many women find that the easiest way to feel their breasts is when the skin is wet and slippery, like during a shower.
Check: Doing regular monthly self-exams gives you the opportunity to see or feel when something is different. Seeing or feeling a lump or swelling; changes to your skin such as the color, puckering, or dimpling; changes to the appearance or your nipples or discharge; and changes in the shape or size of the breast.
The more you examine your breasts, the more familiar you will be and the easier to tell if something has changed. The ideal is to examine yourself several days after your period ends, when your breasts are least likely to be swollen or tender. If you are no longer having periods, choose a day of the month, that’s easy to remember, like the first or last day.
In addition to self-breast exams, you might be wondering if there are other steps you can take to help prevent breast cancer. Some risk factors such as family history, can’t be changed. However, there are lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk. Research shows that lifestyle changes can decrease the risk of breast cancer. To lower your risk:
Limit Alcohol. The general recommendation, based on research, is to limit yourself to no more than one drink a day, as even small amounts increase risk.
Maintain a healthy weight.
If your weight is health, work to maintain that weight. If you need to lose weight, ask your doctor about healthy strategies to accomplish this.
Be physically active.
Physical activity like walking or aerobic activity weekly, can not only help you maintain a healthy weight, but helps prevent breast cancer.
Breast-feeding might play a role in breast cancer prevention. The longer you breast-feed, the greater the protection.
Limit postmenopausal hormone therapy.
Combination hormone therapy may increase the risk of breast cancer. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of hormone therapy, and the importance of your doctor monitoring the length of time you’re taking hormones.
Eat a Healthy Diet.
Eating a well-balanced healthy diet can decrease your risk of some types of cancer, as well as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Annual Wellness Exam.
Establish a relationship with a medical professional, such as a primary care physician or gynecologist. Someone to be a knowledgeable source that is familiar with you, knows what to look for, and can notice changes from one year to the next. Regular visits with your doctor, and additional tests like mammograms help detect breast cancer in earlier stages when they can be treated most effectively.
Now is the time to prioritize your breast health. An estimated 41% of adults delayed medical care during the pandemic. Let Breast Cancer Awareness month serve as a reminder that your health matters. You are important. If you have put off your preventative health screenings, if it’s been a while since you’ve had an exam, or its your regular time to come in, we’re here for you.