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Breast Self-Awareness & Early Detection

About half of all cases of breast cancer in women 50 years and older and nearly three quarters of cases in women under the age of 50 are detected by women themselves (ACOG). At the same time, normal changes that occur in a woman’s breasts can be caused by anything from her monthly menstrual cycle to breastfeeding. Therefore, it’s important to check yourself regularly, so that you know your breasts and can more easily recognize unusual changes or areas of concern. When abnormal changes caused by breast cancer are detected and treated at an early stage, the woman typically has more options for treatment and her chances for survival increase. Here are four steps you can take to improve your breast self-awareness and health:

Know your risk:

Talk to your doctor and both sides of your family about your family medical history to understand your risk. This valuable information helps to determine the level of screening and monitoring that would be best for you.

Know what is normal for you:

The signs of breast cancer are not the same across all women. Maintain regular awareness of the appearance and texture of your breasts and perform monthly breast self-examinations. See a doctor if you notice any of these breast changes: lumps; hard knots; swelling; warmth; dimpling or puckering of the skin; thickened skin inside the breast or underarm area; any changes in size, shape, or color (such as redness or darkening) of the breast; nipple/skin discharge; an itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple; pulling in of your nipple or other part of the breast; or pain in one spot that doesn’t disappear.

Get professionally screened:
  • If you are at higher risk, discuss with your doctor which screening tests are appropriate for you.
  • Consider genetic testing.  Women who are of Ashkenazi Jewish Heritage and close relatives with a  history of cancer such as breast, colon, ovarian, uterine, pancreatic and stomach cancer increase your risk of hereditary cancer.
  • Go for your yearly clinical breast exam at least every three years from age 20 on and annually beginning at age 40.
  • Have a mammogram (an x-ray picture of the breast that can detect breast cancer in its earliest, most treatable stage) performed annually (or as recommended for your age and risk group). This will increase the chances of discovering breast cancer early. For most women, a first mammogram is recommended between the ages of 35-39, and yearly after that. Mammograms are especially useful as women age when breast tissue becomes less dense, since more than 80% of breast cancers are found after age 50.
Prioritize a healthy lifestyle:
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Do not smoke
  • Strive to exercise for at least 150 minutes per week.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption.
  • Limit menopausal hormone use.
  • Breastfeed, if possible.

To learn more about breast cancer, see the National Cancer Institute’s website at www.cancer.gov and the Susan G. Komen website at www.komen.org.

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