In October, it seems as if everything turns pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the breast. There are many different types of breast cancer that can affect both men and women.
One out of every eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. That’s approximately 6,250 Lenawee County residents. Other than skin cancer, it is the most common cancer among American women. Chances are, you know at least one person who has been personally affected by breast cancer.
It’s not all bad news, though. There is hope. When caught in its earliest stages, the 5-year relative survival rate is 99%. And there are resources in Lenawee County to help women in these efforts! Our Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Navigation Program (BCCCNP) offers breast and cervical cancer screening services for women 40 years of age or older who meet certain income and insurance requirements. Women who are found to have breast cancer in this program will qualify for Medicaid for treatment.
Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Everyone should know the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. Most often, they are not due to cancer, but any of them should be investigated as soon as it is discovered by a healthcare professional. If you are insured, contact your primary care provider and schedule an appointment at the sign of any of these abnormalities during your monthly breast self-exams (and if you don’t have insurance – contact us at 517-264-5235):
- A Change in How the Breast of Nipple Looks or Feels
- Nipple tenderness or a lump or thickening in or near the breast or underarm area
- A change in the skin texture or an enlargement of pores in the skin of the breast (some describe this as similar to an orange peel’s texture)
- A lump in the breast
- A Change in the Breast or Nipple Appearance
- Any unexplained change in the size or shape of the breast
- Dimpling anywhere on the breast
- Unexplained swelling of the breast (especially if on one side only)
- Unexplained shrinkage of the breast (especially if on one side only)
- Recent asymmetry (unequal or lack of sameness) of the breasts. Although it is common for women to have one breast that is slightly larger than the other, if the onset of asymmetry is recent, it should be checked.
- Nipple that is turned slightly inward or inverted.
- Skin of the breast, areola, or nipple that becomes scaly, red, or swollen or may have rides or pitting resembling the skin of an orange
- Any Nipple Discharge – Particularly Clear Discharge or Bloody Discharge
A breast self-exam uses a combination of physical and visual examinations of your breasts to check for the above signs and symptoms. You should become familiar with the way your breasts normally look and feel, so you can easily identify any changes or abnormalities.
If you are menstruating, you should perform your self-exam a few days after your period ends. If you don’t menstruate, pick a date each month that you will always remember (the 1st, the 15th, or when an important bill is due) to do your exam.
- In the Shower – With the pads/flats of your three middle fingers, check the entire breast and armpit area, pressing down with light, medium, and firm pressure. Check both breasts each month, feeling for new lumps, thickenings, hardened knots, or any other breast changes.
- In Front of a Mirror – With your arms at your sides, visually inspect your breasts, looking for any changes in the contour or shape of the breasts, any dimpling, swelling, or other skin irregularities on or around the breasts, or any changes in the nipples. Next, rest your palms on your hips and press firmly to flex your chest muscles. Look for any dimpling, puckering, or other changes, particularly on one side. Note that the left and right breasts will not exactly match – few women’s breasts are perfectly symmetrical.
- Lying Down – When lying down, the breast tissue spreads out evenly along the chest wall. Place a pillow under your right shoulder and put your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand, move your three middle fingers around your right breast, covering the entire breast area and armpit. Use light, medium, and firm pressure to feel for any new lumps, thickenings, hardened knots, or any other breast changes. Also squeeze the nipple to check for discharge. Repeat these steps for your left breast.
Clinical Breast Exams
On top of doing your monthly, self-exams, you should have a clinical breast examination at least once a year. This clinical exam is performed by a trained healthcare professional. If a lump is discovered, your provider will note its size, shape, and texture. They will check to see if the lump moves easily and will order further diagnostic measures.
Mammograms are an x-ray that allows a qualified specialist to examine the breast tissue for any suspicious areas. If you are forty or older, you should have mammograms every 1-2 years. If your provider finds something concerning during your annual clinical exam, or if you have risk factors for breast cancer, your provider will order a mammogram.
Mammograms can often show a breast lump before it can be felt, so they are an important part of early detection. Many women encounter barriers when trying to schedule a mammogram – things like concerns with cost or not knowing who to call can be discouraging. We can help! Contact us at 517-264-5235 and we can walk you through it and all your options.
If the mammogram shows an abnormal area of the breast, they will order additional diagnostic tests, offering clearer, more detailed images like an ultrasound or MRI. If those tests show the mass is sold, your provider may recommend a biopsy.
Reducing Your Risk Factors
While breast cancer can’t be completely prevented, and some risk factors are outside of your control, there are many healthy habits that can help reduce your risk:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat fruits and vegetables
- Stay physically active
- Do not smoke
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Schedule your screenings
If you have any questions about how to implement any of these into your daily lifestyle, the Lenawee County Health Department is here to help and has many programs and workshops you might find valuable. Feel free to reach out to us for more information.