By DR. REBEKAH GEE | Secretary, Louisiana Department of HealthBreast cancer first touched my life at the age of 12, when my mother was diagnosed. Initially, her prospects looked promising, and treatment led to remission, buying us additional precious time together.
But three short years later, it re-emerged, and she passed away at the age of 46.
Her bravery, strength and grace through breast cancer left an indelible mark upon my life. She was my inspiration to study medicine, in particular women’s health. As a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist, my passion for my patients is infused with the memory of my mother and her struggle with breast cancer.
She is a constant presence in my mind every October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I don’t want to see anyone else lose a loved one to a disease that has become curable. Take the time to learn about the signs, symptoms and risk factors, and make preventive care a priority.
Signs and symptoms
Every person is different when it comes to breast cancer. Some women and men – yes, men can have breast cancer, too – may not display any signs or symptoms, while others may encounter a mix of any or all of the following:
· New lump in the breast or armpit
· Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
· Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
· Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast
· Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
· Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
· Any change in size or shape of the breast
· Pain in any area of the breastIt’s important to remember that these symptoms may not necessarily be an indication of breast cancer, as they can occur with other conditions, especially lumps. Breast lumps are most commonly caused by fibrocystic breast condition, a noncancerous change in the breast that causes lumps, tenderness and soreness, and cysts, small, fluid-filled sacs that can develop in breast tissue.
If you are concerned, schedule an appointment with your health care provider right away. Of course, if you are 45 or older, I encourage you to make an annual breast exam a part of your regular care plan.
A person’s risk for breast cancer depends on a combination of factors, according to numerous studies, with gender and age as the main determinants. Most breast cancers are found in women who are age 50 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC lists these risk factors that cannot be changed:
· Aging: risk increases with age, with most breast cancers diagnosed after age 50
· Genetic mutations: inherited changes to certain genes, including BRCA1 and BRCA2
· Reproductive history: women who began menstruating before age 12 or start menopause after age 55 are exposed to hormones longer
· Having dense breasts: tumors can be harder to detect on a mammogram because dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue
· Personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases: women with a history of breast cancer are more likely to have a reoccurrence; non-cancerous breast diseases such as atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ are associated with a higher breast cancer risk
· Family history of breast cancer: women who have a mother, sister or daughter (first-degree relative) or multiple family members on either side of the family who have had breast cancer are at increased risk; a first-degree male relative with breast cancer also increases risk
· Previous treatment using radiation therapy: radiation therapy to the chest or breasts before age 30 increases the risk of breast cancer later in life
· Women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES): some pregnant women in the United States received this drug from 1940 to 1971 to prevent miscarriage; women who took this drug and daughters born to them while taking the drug are at riskRisk factors that you can change:
· Not being physically active: physical activity can lower the risk of breast cancer
· Being overweight or obese after menopause: older women at a healthy weight are less likely to develop breast cancer than those who carry extra pounds
· Taking hormones: hormone replacement therapies including both estrogen and progesterone taken during menopause can raise risk when taken for more than five years; certain birth control pills also have been found to increase breast cancer risk
· Reproductive history: women who first become pregnant after age 30, don’t breastfeed or never carry a pregnancy to full term are more at risk
· Drinking alcohol: the more alcohol a woman drinks, the more her risk of breast cancer risesOther factors that may increase the risk of breast cancer include smoking, being exposed to cancer-causing chemicals and hormonal changes due to working a night shift.
Get your mammogram
As I mentioned earlier, I urge every woman to take care of yourself and have a regular mammogram. This X-ray of the breast is a simple, relatively quick procedure that could save your life. The CDC even offers free or low-cost mammograms to those who may not be able to afford one through its National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.
Having had my share of mammograms – in fact, I’m scheduled for one this month – I know that it may not be the most comfortable procedure and you may want to skip it because you find it painful. Just remember that any discomfort you may experience is temporary. It also helps not to schedule your mammogram for the week before or during your period, because that’s when your breasts are more likely to be tender or swollen.
Avoid wearing perfume, powder or deodorant on the day of your mammogram because these products can show up as white spots on the X-ray. You will need to undress from the waist up for the procedure, so maybe save your dresses for another day. A top with a skirt or pants will make the process easier.
Such a simple test can save a life. Don’t skip yours.
To learn more about breast cancer, visit the CDC and American Cancer Society webpages.