October 1 marks the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. You’ll see a number of efforts in support of the American Cancer Association and the Susan G. Komen Foundation, as well as lots of pink ribbons. But, the mutual goal of these organizations is to help save lives, through early detection.
This month is about more than just wearing pink. It’s about educating and encouraging women of all ages to learn how to conduct a self examination, get a proper screening, schedule a mammogram and have an annual well woman exam.
“I was diagnosed 18 years ago; I was young, I was 28 at the time. Really, what was different about 18 years ago, is that not a lot of women that age are diagnosed. But now, it is very, very common,” said Jennifer Riley, director of Women’s Health at the YWCA of Lubbock.
“My earliest breast cancer patient was actually age 23, and so I feel very strongly that you should do some type of self breast exams, and also go to your annual exams cause maybe your provider will find a mass early,” Dr. Christina Belle-Henry, FACOG at Lubbock’s Women’s Health Associates, said.
With breast cancer and the early detection of it, timing is really everything.
Keeping in mind that your body naturally changes before, during and after your menstrual cycle, Belle-Henry suggests checking breasts once a month after their menstrual cycle.
“I’ll have mothers say, ‘When should my daughter start checking their breasts?’ I tell them that if they’re growing breasts, go a head and show them how to do breast exams so it becomes a good habit,” Belle-Henry said. “Kind of like brushing your teeth, but once a month. And if you don’t have menstrual cycles, most people, they have dogs, so when you give your dog their heart guard, go ahead and do your breast exam so you can keep everything in a routine.”
As you complete your self examinations, you should also consider that some societies recommend you look for any changes to your breasts. Be aware of those changes, make note of them and then see a physician if it remains an issue for more than three to four weeks.
“What you’re looking for is you wanna make sure that everything looks symmetrical, you want to make sure that there’s not dimpling, like where the skin is pulling inward, as though maybe there’s tumor pulling on the skin. If your breasts are like really, really red and you’re not sunburned, there’s not cause for the redness and it’s not going away within about 3-4 weeks, then you need to go in and get checked. Or, if your skin looks like an orange peel or scaling, just any changes,” Belle-Henry said.
The most common sign is if you find a mass similar to a pebble or an orange seed, Belle-Henry said, that you can feel and doesn’t go away after your menstrual cycle. She said to make sure you follow up with your physician, so that can be assessed.
When caught early, it can be treated early and thus, it can be survived.
“If you find a mass, the very next step is to schedule an appointment with your physician so that way they can also do an exam and get some type of mammogram or some type of screening. And, we can see if the mass is suspicious, if the mass is suspicions then they may refer you for a biopsy or additional imaging to see if the mass is changing and to access whether it’s cancer or not,” Belle-Henry said.
“My main thing is just that you get screened, mammograms saves lives,” she said. “It can detect cancers before you can even feel them, so you’re catching it at a very early stage. So, just make sure you go in for a screening, it can save your life.”
There are a number of medical societies and associations that have recommendations on when and how often women should have breast exams, mammograms and screenings, but the consensus is that early screenings do save lives.