Every woman is at risk for breast cancer and this risk increases with age. Most women diagnosed with breast cancer do not fit the “breast cancer risk profile.” Although a woman’s risk for breast cancer is greater if her grandmother, mother or sister has had breast cancer, 80% of all women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of disease. Early detection is still your best protection. Take charge of your health with this simple three-step plan.
1. Monthly Breast Self-Examination
Breast development stabilizes around age 20, so this is a good time for women to become familiar with the “geography” of their breasts through a breast self-exam (BSE). This familiarity will help you notice breast changes, including an unusual lump, skin texture changes, and uneven or asymmetrical changes of the breast or nipple.
Monthly breast self exam (BSE) is recommended about a week after your period begins for pre-menopausal women. After menopause, select a day within the month that is convenient or memorable. If you notice a change in your breast, including a lump or thickening, any unusual nipple discharge, redness, swelling, or dimpling of the breast you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. These changes do not necessarily indicate that you have cancer, so don’t panic, but do check with your doctor.
2. Screening Mammography
A mammogram is a screening tool, a special type of X-ray of the breast that can show a tumor or a worrisome area of calcifications before other symptoms occur. Women in their forties should discuss their health history with their doctor to determine annual or bi-annual screenings. All women 50 years and older should have an annual mammogram. To find a federally accredited mammography center, call the American College of Radiology (ACR) at 800-227-6440 or visit the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
3. Clinical Breast Exam
Your yearly medical check up should include a careful breast exam. A good clinical breast exam (CBE) consists of a medical history, a visual examination of the breasts, an examination of the lymph nodes at the base of the neck and in the armpits, and a thorough palpation of the breast tissue. Family history is also important for assessing a woman’s risk factors.
During the visual exam, the patient should be upright to more easily examine the breast tissue just above the collarbone and to check for dimpling of the skin, retraction of the nipple, or changes in size or texture of the breast and skin. Flexing chest muscles by placing the hands on hips makes a woman’s underlying ligaments more prominent and accentuates any irregularities. While still upright, some doctors probe the underarm lymph nodes and the lymph nodes above the collarbone. Finally, the doctor palpates the breast tissue while the woman is lying down with her arms above or behind her head. If a woman has large breasts, the doctor may have the woman lie on her side in order to more fully examine all breast tissue.
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