Breast cancer is the second most common kind of cancer in women. About 1 in 8 women born today in the United States will get breast cancer at some point. The good news is that most women can survive breast cancer if it’s found and treated early. A mammogram – the screening test for breast cancer – can help find breast cancer early when it’s easier to treat. Every person should know the symptoms and signs of breast cancer, and any time an abnormality is discovered, it should be investigated by a healthcare professional. Most people who have breast cancer symptoms and signs will initially notice only one or two, and the presence of these symptoms and signs do not automatically mean that you have breast cancer.
Dr. Biren Shah, director of breast imaging at VCU Massey Cancer Center says, “the goal of breast cancer screening is to reduce deaths caused by breast cancer by finding a breast cancer early, when treatment is more effective and less harmful. Many studies have shown 30 to 40 percent fewer deaths due to breast cancer among women screened with mammography than among those who were not screened.”
Adult women of all ages are encouraged to perform breast self-exams at least once a month. While mammograms can help you to detect cancer before you can feel a lump, breast self-exams help you to be familiar with how your breasts look and feel so you can alert your healthcare professional if there are any changes.
“Annual screening mammography starting at the age of 40 results in the greatest reduction in mortality, the most lives saved and the most years of life gained. One in 6 breast cancers occur in women in their 40’s,” says Dr. Shah. “That is why the American College of Radiology and Society of Breast Imaging recommend annual screening mammography starting at the age of 40.”
How Should A Breast Self-Exam Be Performed?
1) In the Shower
Using the pads of your fingers, move around your entire breast in a circular pattern moving from the outside to the center, checking the entire breast and armpit area. Check both breasts each month feeling for any lump, thickening, or hardened knot.
2) In Front of a Mirror
Visually inspect your breasts with your arms at your sides. Next, raise your arms high overhead. Look for any changes in the contour, any swelling, or dimpling of the skin, or changes in the nipples. Next, rest your palms on your hips and press firmly to flex your chest muscles. Left and right breasts will not exactly match — few women’s breasts do, so look for any dimpling, puckering, or changes, particularly on one side.
3) Lying Down
When lying down, the breast tissue spreads out evenly along the chest wall. Place a pillow under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand, move the pads of your fingers around your right breast gently in small circular motions covering the entire breast area and armpit.
Use light, medium, and firm pressure. Squeeze the nipple; check for discharge and lumps. Repeat these steps for your left breast.
- If you are a woman age 40 to 49, talk with your doctor about when to start getting mammograms and how often to get them.
- If you are a woman age 50 to 74, be sure to get a mammogram every 2 years. You may also choose to get them more often.
“There are several things a woman can do to lower her risk of breast cancer as well as things a woman can do to detect a breast cancer early so that she maximizes her chances of survival even after a diagnosis of breast cancer,” says Dr. Kandace McGuire, chief of breast surgery and surgical leader of the Breast Health Program at VCU Massey Cancer Center.
(1) Maintaining a normal body mass index (BMI). Overweight and obese women have a higher risk of breast cancer than those with a normal BMI.
(2) Limiting alcohol intake. Women who drink more than two alcoholic beverages per week have an increased risk of breast cancer.
(3) Regular exercise. Women who exercise regularly can lower their risk of breast cancer.
(4) Breastfeeding. Breastfeeding, especially for 1 year or longer, can lower the risk of breast cancer.
Talk to a doctor about your risk for breast cancer, especially if a close family member of yours had breast or ovarian cancer. Your doctor can help you decide when and how often to get mammograms.