Eyes Wide Open: Early Detection & Screening
Hello October! If you’re like us here on the East Coast, the air’s a bit chillier and thoughts of winter are looming. There’s the dread of catching a cold or worse the flu! But this is old hat, right? We’ll visit our doctor and see what we can do to stay ahead of the season. Yet what do we do to stay ahead of breast cancer? More importantly, what can we do? For starters, have a conversation with your doctor and understand your options. It could wind up saving your life.
As most of us know October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month - but here at EOTS - every day, week, and month is all about breast cancer awareness! So in honor of the month, and our everyday goal, we hope to raise awareness about all things breast cancer through this blog, our social media, and first and foremost: our calendar! We’ve met so many inspiring women over the last few months and have learned so much from their personal journeys with breast cancer. One consistent theme has been knowing our bodies and taking action. Within our family of survivors, two methods proven most beneficial are self-exams and mammograms so we want to flesh these out a bit more.
We believe the most basic, easiest and potentially life-saving approach to start with is a self-exam. Now, this is actually a bit debatable which is why we led with, “we believe.” It‘s interesting to note that the American Cancer Society, and other reputable breast cancer organizations, point out that research has not shown a significant benefit of physical breast exams (self or clinical) for breast cancer screening and due to this they’re not really encouraged.
To be clear, we understand their point is that screening and early detection should technically predate any actual symptoms that would be seen or felt. And of course we agree that would be the ideal situation. However, we know and continue to learn from so many women who have either found a lump or noticed a change in the visual appearance of their breasts which saved their lives in cases where without the self-exam, they wouldn’t have known period. Either they weren’t at the age where screenings are typically encouraged (more on this in bit), or they were screened and yet no cancer was detected, like our August rep Brenda Dukes who found a lump and got diagnosed after a mammogram hadn’t detected anything. And as we learned from our June rep, Corey Ayala-Fagundez, spotting a change can be just as important as feeling a lump. Corey noticed a change in the appearance of her breast, went for a mammogram, and was soon diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer.
Because of Brenda and Corey, and the multitude of stories like theirs, we strongly encourage women to get clinical breast exams and perform self-exams – and not just with their hands but their eyes, too. For easy to follow instructions on breast self-exams, check out www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-self-exam.
ACS agrees we shouldn’t toss out exams altogether as they also note that despite the lack of support for self-exams as a screening method, “Still, all women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to a health care provider right away.”
So let’s shift to mammograms which are widely recognized as a go-to screening method.
Mammograms are x-ray exams of the breast that use a machine created to look specifically at breast tissue. Since the x-rays are taken at lower doses than regular x-rays, the machine uses two plates that essentially flatten the breast in order to spread the tissue apart and capture the best x-ray images through the tissue.
For women at an average risk, ACS suggests beginning annual mammograms between 40 and 44 if desired though not required, noting that women should be aware of the benefits and risks.
What risks? Well, women are actually exposed to a small amount of radiation during a mammogram and this exposure can, in time, increase the risk of breast cancer. While the medical consensus is that the increase in this risk is minimal, an annual mammogram is typically not recommended from too early an age.
For women 45 to 54, it is encouraged to get annual mammograms and for women 55 and older, the frequency can drop down to every two years, though annually is fine if they choose.
According to ACS, women who have regular mammograms are more likely to have breast cancer detected early and therefore less likely to need aggressive treatment and more likely to be cured. Although, they also note that even mammograms have their limitations. Mammograms can miss some cancers, and further tests will be needed to determine if something found on a mammogram is actually cancer. All women getting mammograms are encouraged to discuss all of the benefits, limitations and risks with their doctor.
For women at a high risk level, the norm is a bit different. For these women, annual MRIs are encouraged in combination with the yearly mammogram, starting at 30. Some examples that may put a woman in this category are having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation or a first-degree relative (like a parent, sibling or child) with these gene mutations, or having had radiation to the chest area between the ages of 10 and 30. Again, it is vital to discuss your level with your doctor as MRIs are typically discouraged unless there is high risk and as mentioned before, for the average woman even mammograms are generally not recommended before 40.
If you’re still with us, we know there are lots of guidelines! But the most important thing to know is that there are defensive measures we can take to be aware of our bodies.
So during your next trip to nurse that common cold or seasonal bug, remember it’s never too early to ask your doctor about anything that could save your life! Talk about your medical history and develop a custom plan for you.
In the meantime, we hope you join us again in a few weeks as we continue to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month, meet our October survivor, and gain more inspiration from our fierce family of breast cancer survivors and supporters!