by Patricia Bailey
If there was only one thing I could convey to women about their health it would be the significance of breast screening. During my 30 years as a breast surgeon, I’ve seen the difference that early detection can make. According to the American Cancer Society, women age 40 and older should have a mammogram every year and should continue to do so for as long as they are in good health.
Current evidence supporting mammograms is even stronger than in the past. In particular, recent evidence has confirmed that mammograms offer substantial benefit for women in their 40s. Women can feel confident about the benefits associated with regular mammograms for finding cancer early.
Women, ages 20-40, should have a clinical breast exam (CBE) by a health professional preferably every three years. And, starting at age 40, women should have a CBE every year. Breast self-exam (BSE) is an option for women starting in their 20s.
During self-exams, if you feel a lump in your breast, it’s understandable to be concerned. But don’t jump to conclusions. Instead, take action. Call your doctor to find out what it is. Also, make sure you are not mislead by myths about breast lumps.
Myth: A breast lump is probably cancer.
Most breast lumps women feel — 8 out of 10 — aren’t cancer. It’s more common for them to be a cyst (a sac) or a fibroadenoma (an abnormal growth that’s not cancer). Some lumps come and go during a woman’s menstrual cycle. Truth is — You can’t tell what it is by how it feels.
Myth: There’s nothing you can do to lower your breast cancer risk.
While you can’t change certain risk factors — like being female and having a family history of breast cancer — you can do a lot to help reduce your breast cancer risk as much as possible. In a word: lifestyle. Exercise more and eat healthier, especially if you’re overweight or obese. Limit or eliminate alcohol and quit smoking. Cancer prevention isn’t fool-proof, but being responsible about your health can go a long way.
Myth: You don’t need mammograms after menopause.
Getting older is not a reason to skip regular breast health checks. In fact, your risk of developing breast cancer goes up as you get older. About two out of three invasive breast cancers are found in women age 55 or older. As long as you’re in good health and would be a candidate for treatment, you should continue getting mammograms.
Myth: if you have a lump but your mammogram is normal, you’re done.
You may need more tests, such as an MRI, ultrasound, or follow-up mammogram, to take another look at the lump. You may also need to get a biopsy, which is when a doctor takes a small sample of the lump to test it. Your doctor may also recommend getting checked more often.
Myth: Cancerous breast lumps are always painless.
Not necessarily. Although breast cancers aren’t always painful, having breast pain doesn’t rule out cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer — which has early symptoms such as redness, swelling, tenderness and warmth in the breast — can be painful when there is a lump.
Myth: A small lump is less likely to be cancer than a large lump.
Breast lumps come in all sizes, and size doesn’t affect the odds that it’s cancer. Even small lumps can be aggressive cancers.
Myth: If you feel a lump soon after a mammogram, it’s OK to wait another year.
Call your doctor if you notice a lump soon after your latest mammogram, even if the results were normal. Mammograms can miss some cancers, especially if you have dense breast tissue or if the lump is in an awkward location (such as near your armpit).
Myth: A lump is probably harmless if there’s no breast cancer in your family.
Many women think they’re not at risk for breast cancer if no one in their family has had it. But that’s not true. Less than 15 percent of women with breast cancer have a relative who’s had the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. Get all lumps checked by a doctor, whether or not breast cancer runs in your family.
Patricia Bailey, M.D., is a breast surgeon and medical director of the Chestnut Hill Hospital Women’s Center (Blue Bell and Chestnut Hill). The Center is a Certified Quality Breast Center of Excellence offering health care for all stages of a woman’s life including nurse navigator; low-dose, digital mammography; ultrasound; bone density (DEXA) screening; and therapeutic massage. Meet Dr. Bailey at the free Pastorius Park Summer Concert series on Wednesday, July 16 at 7 p.m. Bring your questions and visit the Chestnut Hill Hospital booth.