Guest Author - A. Maria Hester, M.D.
When it comes to your breasts, you have a primary responsibility for your own health. Your doctor can only do his part if you do yours. Performing monthly breast self-examination is a very important part of this responsibility because it is an excellent way to detect breast cancer in its early stages.
Why examine your own breasts? It is an excellent defense against breast cancer. Practically every woman knows someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. If detected early, breast cancer can be treated with great results.
-A high percentage of breast lumps are not found by doctors. They are found by women, either by accident or when performing breast self-examination (BSE).
-Most breast lumps turn out to be noncancerous (benign), and therefore are not life-threatening.
-Even if a lump is cancerous, the cancer can be cured over 90% of the time IF it is found early enough, and the cancer is confined to the breast. That's why early detection is so important. Early detection and prompt treatment have increased the survival rate and mammogram, couple with BSE can save a multitude of lives.
Every woman is at risk from breast cancer. Research shows that tumors found by women who practice BSE on a regular basis are half the size of tumors found by those who do not practice BSE. The smaller tumor has a greater chance to be contained within the breast if cancerous, and therefore a much higher chance of survival.
When should I examine my breasts? Each and every month, about a week after your menstrual cycle has ended (If you still have menses). By waiting a week, the breast changes that occur during your cycle would have resolved. If you do not have monthly cycles because you are irregular, pregnant, or have had a hysterectomy, you may want to chose a date in every month when you will examine your breasts.
Certain factors have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer:
-Personal or family history of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society 5-10% of breast cancers are believed to be hereditary.
-Early onset of menstruation and late menopause (more years exposed to female hormones)
-Age over 40
-Higher education and socioeconomic status
-Dense breast tissue
-Prior high doses of chest radiation (e.g. radiation for a cancer such as Hodgkin lymphoma)
-Having no children or having a first child after age 30
-Being obese or overweight
-Drinking more than 1 alcoholic beverage daily.
-Recent birth control pill use or prior hormone replacement therapy
-Certain benign breast conditions
However, breast cancer is so common that every woman should be screened. Screening is a method of checking for disease when symptoms are not present. Many women fail to examine their breasts because they do not know how to do it correctly. Normal breast tissue is composed of mainly fatty and glandular tissue, and varies in consistency from woman to woman. Even within each individual woman, the texture varies at different times during her menstrual cycle. Monthly breast exams enable a woman to become familiar with her own breasts and to gain confidence in her ability to perform breast self exams. You are looking for any changes within the breast as compared to previous examinations. If a change is found, you should report it to your doctor immediately.
What is the doctor's responsibility? During your annual exam, a thorough breast examination should be done by your physician. Any questions or concerns you may have should be addressed completely. The keys to early breast cancer detection are therefore, monthly breast self-examinations by women, annual breast examinations by your doctor, and mammogram when recommended. Remember, BSE is not a substitute for routine mammograms or regular breast examinations by your doctor.