Breast Cancer Prevention and Screening
By Darla Gullikson, RN, OCN
Avera Sacred Heart Cancer Center Director
The American Cancer Society (ACS) believes the probability of a woman developing cancer in her lifetime is a little more than 1 in 3. This makes breast cancer the second most common form of cancer diagnosed in women each year (skin cancer is first) and the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among women (lung cancer is first).
While these numbers present the stark reality that women are faced with each year, October’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month aims to educate women and encourage them to detect problems earlier when they are still highly treatable. With advances in medicine, better education and improved technology, breast cancer death rates have declined significantly, especially among younger women, according to the ACS.
It has been proven that there is no tool more valuable for early detection of breast cancer than mammography. A mammogram is an x-ray photograph of the breasts. It is used to detect tumors, cysts and other abnormalities that may be present. It can also help differentiate between benign (non-cancerous) and malignant (cancerous) disease.
The National Cancer Institute recommends a baseline mammogram between the ages of 35 and 40, and then every one to two years for ages 40 and over. Women with a family history of breast cancer should talk to their physician about mammogram screenings at an even younger age. Remember, family history includes not only the maternal side but also the paternal family history.
Generally, there is little to no health risk when having a mammogram performed. The level of radiation is very low.
By the age of 20, it is recommended that women have clinical breast exams performed by their physician every three years. During a clinical breast exam, your health care provider will assess for abnormalities on the breast. Although there is some recent controversy about the effectiveness of monthly self exams, it is still recommended that women conduct them by feeling and looking for abnormalities such as:
- Lump or swelling
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk
- Redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin
- Irritation or dimpling of the skin on the breast
- New retraction or pain of the nipple
As with most diseases, your risk of developing breast cancer increases with age and if you have a family history of the disease. Other risk factors include genetic risk factors, race (white women are slightly more likely to get breast cancer than any other race), use of birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy, not breastfeeding, alcohol use, diet and exercise. While all of these risk factors have been shown to demonstrate a slightly increased likelihood for the development of breast cancer, age and family history (including personal history), are the two most significant risk factors.
We have two wonderful programs in South Dakota and Nebraska to help ensure that women, who may not be able to afford a mammogram or have no medical insurance, are able to partake in the screenings. In South Dakota, the program is called “All Women Count” and in Nebraska it is called “Every Woman Matters.” You can learn more about these organizations and pick up forms for assistance by visiting with your health care provider.
The best course of action is to talk openly with your health care provider about your risks and your concerns and learn more about the disease. You should also speak with your family members to learn more about your family history. Early detection is the key to surviving breast cancer, and a lump you may find on a self-exam may have easily been spotted much earlier with a clinical breast exam in combination with a mammogram.
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