Don’t get complacent about breast cancer

Admit it – you may not worry about breast cancer the way you used to. Many people you know who have had it have beaten it – in the U.S. alone there are over 2 million breast cancer survivors today. You think the chances of it happening to you are slim, and if it does, it won’t be a big deal – but survivors of the disease, especially of late stage disease, know differently. This false sense of security may have led to a decrease in mammograms in recent years. However, the numbers don’t lie: When breast cancer is caught at its earliest stages, the survival rate is 98 percent-98 PERCENT! A number like that is motivation alone to get a regular mammogram and other screenings.

Last spring I became acutely aware of how complacent I had become about my annual mammogram. I went to my local hospital for the exam and, as usual, put it out of my mind once the discomfort of the procedure was over. A few days later, I got a call from my family doctor’s office informing me there was a suspicious spot on my mammogram. I felt as though I’d been struck by lightning.

My doctor wanted me to have a second mammogram as well as a sonogram. It was Friday, and I was sure I’d fall apart if I had to endure the weekend not knowing if there was a real problem. Fortunately, I was able to get an appointment that very afternoon, and all the follow-up tests were negative. The relief was overwhelming.

The hours between the call and the second set of tests were agonizing, and I have often wondered how I would have handled a different diagnosis. One thing is certain: I will never put off my mammogram again, and I resolve not to procrastinate on other wellness procedures. I urge you to make the same pledge to yourself.

Almost 200,000 Americans will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and more than 40,000 will die from the disease. In Louisiana alone, 2,700 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 690 will die.

As October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is a great time to recommit yourself to your breast health, as well as remind friends and family to have their screenings.

The combination of monthly breast self-exams, yearly clinical breast exams, and regular mammograms beginning at age 40 is the best way to detect breast cancer in its earlier and most treatable stages. Breast cancer is often detected in its earliest stage as an abnormality on a mammogram before it can be felt by a woman or by her health care provider.

Breast Self-Exam (BSE): Every woman should examine her breasts once a month to check for physical changes. If you are unsure of how to perform a breast self-exam, ask your health care provider to demonstrate and explain the ideal time to conduct one. It is very important for women to become familiar with their breasts and understand what feels normal. Start early, beginning at age 20.

Clinical Breast Exam (CBE): Be sure to ask your health care provider to give you a clinical breast exam each year. The exam consists of checking the breasts for any changes, lumps, or other possible warning signs of breast cancer through physical touch and appearance. You should begin having clinical breast exams in your 20s and 30s.

Mammography: Beginning at age 40, all women should have an annual mammogram. It is a good idea to have a baseline mammogram at age 35. The mammogram is an “X-ray” of the breast and is the most effective method of detecting breast changes that may be cancer, long before physical symptoms can be seen or felt.

It is also important to know that while all men and women are at risk, some women are at a higher risk. Age itself is a risk factor for breast cancer; about 77 percent of the women diagnosed are over the age of 50. Also at higher risk are women with a family history of breast cancer, women with inherited abnormal genes, women who have previously had cancer in one breast, and obese women with sedentary lifestyles.

Some other commonsense prevention tips are to eat a low fat diet, exercise regularly, and not smoke. And if you suspect that you are at high risk for the disease, talk to your health care provider. With the strides being made in prevention, there are drugs available to help prevent breast cancer for the higher risk categories.

Don’t let complacency get to you: Talk to your doctor about your risk for breast cancer and any screenings you should be having.
If you would like additional information on cancer prevention, please visit www.preventcancer.org.

Peachy Melancon is the wife of Rep. Charlie Melancon and is a member of the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program of the Prevent Cancer Foundation.