There’s an old proverb that remains relevant today: Prevention is better than cure. When it comes to breast health, this couldn’t be more true. Breast cancer prevention — or catching it in the early stages — hinges largely on proactive measures, including breast self-exams, yearly mammograms and an awareness of one’s body.
According to statistics from the National Cancer Institute, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. When breast cancer is detected early (for instance, when it is in the localized stage), the five-year survival rate is almost 100%. That’s why it’s important to take the time to learn the facts and take charge of your breast health.
Here are just a few of the tools you can use and measures you can take to reduce your risk of breast cancer, and detect any potential problems early on.
Breast Self-Exams: The First Line of Defense
While many medical procedures require appointments, specialized tools and sometimes even medical insurance, the breast self-exam is relatively easy, personal, simple and free.
This hands-on approach encourages women to become familiar with how their breasts feel. While it might feel funny at first, if you are not used to self-exams, intentionally feeling your breasts is the best way to get to know them. Knowing your breasts well enables you to detect any unusual changes, lumps or abnormalities.
Though breast self-exams are not a substitute for mammograms, they act as a crucial initial step. The Mayo Clinic encourages women to ask their doctors for a demonstration on how best and when best to conduct self-exams. If you detect anything unusual, be safe and contact your doctor.
Mammograms: The Proactive Radiograph
The mammogram — or an X-ray of the breast — is an essential tool in the breast health toolkit. Yearly mammograms can detect tumors that are too small to be felt and can identify cancers before symptoms develop, making it easier to treat.
Mary Cox, the publisher of Indy’s Child and Southwest Ohio Parent, was one of the lucky ones. Her mammogram revealed a tiny lump — the size of a grain of rice. It was cancerous.
However, in just a few short months, the cancer was removed, and she was given the all-clear. Cox is grateful that she went to her yearly mammogram on time, so that they were able to catch it early.
There’s a cloud of myths surrounding mammograms, with fears about radiation exposure or discomfort. But modern mammography uses low radiation doses, and while there might be slight discomfort, it’s very brief. The benefits of early detection far outweigh these concerns.
Beyond Self-Exams and Mammograms
A lesser-known tool — comprehensive breast health awareness — encompasses a wider spectrum than self-exams and mammograms.
Clinical Breast Exams: Performed by healthcare professionals. These exams are a more thorough manual check and can often detect abnormalities missed during self-exams.
Genetic Testing: For those with a strong family history of breast cancer, genetic tests like the BRCA1 and BRCA2 can provide insights into potential inherited risks.
Breast MRI: Generally reserved for those at high risk, this imaging method offers a more detailed picture than mammograms, particularly beneficial for women with dense breast tissue.
A Holistic Approach: Lifestyle and Awareness
Examinations and screenings are essential for breast health, but those shouldn’t be the only tools in your breast-health arsenal.
As part of your preventive care, it helps to make informed lifestyle choices. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, a sedentary lifestyle, and obesity are some known risk enhancers. On the flip side, eating well, exercising regularly and visiting the doctor yearly are all proactive ways to take care of your health.
A Personal Investment
Breast health is a deeply personal commitment. Cox explained how traumatic it was to walk into the breast cancer medical office for the very first time. She saw women at every stage of their breast cancer journey. She felt herself break down.
She didn’t want to be there. She didn’t want to be sick. And because Cox was proactive about her breast health, doesn’t have to visit that medical office anymore.
Using these tools to take care of your health is a statement of empowerment. It’s a declaration of power and an embrace of agency over one’s own body. Through regular self-exams, mammograms, and a commitment to understanding and advocating for one’s health, women everywhere can create a shield against breast cancer.
In this collective effort, every self-exam performed, every mammogram taken, and every story shared adds up to a tapestry of prevention and hope.