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Breast exams and mammograms

Breast cancer often makes itself known in its early stages, when there’s a good chance for a cure. But here’s the catch: You must be doing the right screenings to detect breast cancer. That includes monthly breast self-exams, regular clinical breast exams and regular mammograms.

Yet many women still put off these exams for any number of reasons. If you have an excuse for not being tested, read on. The following seven reasons to get screened should help convince you that now is the time to take action:

  1. Your risk increases as you age. More than 75 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are 50 years or older. For this reason, and because mammography is generally safe and effective, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends this screening once a year beginning at age 40.
  2. You have a family history of breast cancer. In that case, your physician might have recommended regular mammograms earlier than age 40 or an annual magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. He or she may also advise genetic testing. In 5 percent to 10 percent of diagnosed breast cancers, an increased risk may be related to defective genes called BRCA1 or BRCA2.
  3. Many newly diagnosed breast cancer patients with a strong family history of the disease may benefit from genetic testing and counseling to help them choose treatment and to gauge their risk for future breast cancer. Experts stress, however, that 20 percent to 40 percent of women with the gene do not develop breast cancer, and only about 10 percent to 15 percent of all breast cancers are caused by inherited factors. So while having a family history of breast cancer is a risk factor, not having such a history doesn’t excuse you from obtaining the appropriate screenings.

  4. You’re a woman of color. Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women, mostly because their cancer is being found at later stages, after it has spread to other parts of the body and treatment is less successful. The good news: When it’s detected early in all women, breast cancer usually doesn’t win; you do.
  5. You’re overweight and don’t eat a balanced diet. Now is your chance to avoid breast cancer by making some big lifestyle changes. Carrying extra pounds, especially after menopause, increases your risk. To prevent breast cancer, experts recommend eating a variety of healthful foods, including five or more servings of vegetables and fruit daily, plus whole grains, and limiting consumption of saturated fats and fatty red meats. But don’t forget, even the perfect eaters among us still need our screenings!
  6. You’re a couch potato. Put down the remote. Lack of physical activity can up your odds of getting breast cancer. The goal: Moderate activity for 30 minutes or more five or more days of the week.
  7. You average more than one drink a day. Studies show that alcohol consumption can put you at higher risk for breast cancer, both before and after menopause.
  8. You found a thickening or a lump in your breast. Even a mammogram is not always perfect at detecting abnormalities—your own exams count, too. If you find a breast lump, despite a normal mammogram, have it checked right away by your doctor. And remember, not all lumps are cancerous, so don’t panic!

Mammography: Small pain, big gain

The little inconvenience and discomfort of getting a mammogram is far outweighed by its big benefits. Regular breast screening exams are the number-one way to reduce your risk of dying from breast cancer. A mammogram takes about 20 minutes (the actual breast compression lasts for only a few seconds) and can bring great peace of mind. Only one or two mammograms in 1,000 lead to a diagnosis of cancer, according to the ACS. And even if a malignant lump is detected, if it’s caught early and confined to the breast, the survival rate is more than 95 percent. The whole point of getting regular screening tests is to find the disease at its earliest, most treatable stage.

Even if your mammogram shows no problems, you have to continue screenings annually to really fight the risks. Promise yourself that you’ll commit to a yearly appointment, and mark it in pink on your calendar (for instance, every October, every year around your birthday or every May for a Mother’s Day gift to yourself).

So what’s your excuse for skipping a mammogram and other lifesaving screenings? The facts are stacked in your favor…all you have to do is make the screenings a regular part of your healthy routine.

4 essential breast tests

Annual screening mammogram, starting at age 40: A technician will compress each breast between two plates to flatten and spread the tissue. The equipment uses low-dose radiation to take an X-ray that is read by a radiologist.

Clinical breast exam (CBE), starting at age 20: Have this hands-on examination of your breasts and underarm area by a healthcare professional every three years during your 20’s and 30’s and annually after age 40. The expert will gently knead your skin to search for any lumps (much as you do in a BSE). Schedule the CBE close to and preferably before a mammogram.

Monthly breast self-exam (BSE), starting at age 20: If you regularly examine your breasts, you’re more likely to notice any changes from month to month. The best time is about a week after your period ends. If you’re not having regular periods anymore, do BSE on the same day every month. If you find any changes, see your doctor right away.

Annual screening MRI, starting at age 30, for women at very high risk: This painless test that uses no radiation is now recommended for women who have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene (or have a close relative with the gene if they haven’t been tested themselves), were treated with radiation therapy to the chest before age 30 or have other reasons to be at very high risk for breast cancer. The MRI scan doesn’t replace your annual mammogram – the two tests are used together to increase the chance of finding breast cancer early if you’re in this high-risk group.