Breast self-exams are one way women can take a proactive approach against becoming a victim of breast cancer.
It’s OK to touch yourself. In fact, health care professionals encourage women to do it on a regular basis.
A breast self-exam is one way to detect cancer. Most doctors recommend that women begin the practice in their 20s. Being aware of how your breasts look and feel is something every woman can do, and it just might save your life.
The step-by-step process should be done lying down with one arm behind your head to allow the breast tissue to spread out evenly over the chest wall, making it easier to feel the breast tissue. Using the pads of your fingers, you can check for lumps or anything else out of the ordinary. Also, feel your underarms for lumps or thickening while sitting up or lying down with your arm slightly raised.
Breast self-exams are a fairly elaborate process combining movement and pressure. Instructions are readily available on the Internet, or ask your doctor.
Women also should look at themselves. Stand in front of a mirror with your arms down and hands on hips. Inspect your breasts for changes in size, shape or contour. Look for dimpling or redness. Check your nipples and for changes in the skin.
A clinical breast exam mirrors the self-exam except it is done by a professional health care provider, who will look at your breasts, their size and shape and ask about any changes in the skin of the breasts or nipples. Then they will use a technique much the same as the one you can do at home to check for lumps in the breasts or underarms. Be sure to ask for tips on doing the exam on your own.
Mammograms and other screenings
A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. It allows doctors to see breast cancer long before it is felt, giving women the best chance of survival.
Women should have their first mammogram between the ages of 40 and 50 and every two years thereafter. Your doctor may recommend one at an earlier age or even more often, if symptoms of breast cancer are found or if breast cancer runs in your family.
Be forewarned, mammograms are likely to be uncomfortable and may even hurt, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The amount of discomfort varies with the skill of the person doing the X-ray, the size of your breasts and the amount of pressure necessary to get a good picture.
To take the X-ray, your breast is placed on a plate and another plate is firmly pressed down from above, flattening the breast and holding it in place while the X-ray is taken. The process is repeated to get a view of each side of each breast.
A radiologist then checks the X-ray for any signs of breast cancer or other problems. Results are usually available within a few weeks – or sooner if something is found.
The CDC recommends that women avoid scheduling a mammogram the week before their period or during their period because breasts often are more tender or swollen. Don’t wear deodorant, perfume or powder because those products can show up on the X-ray. You’ll be asked to remove your top, so dress accordingly.
An abnormal mammogram does not mean you have cancer. But it likely will mean additional tests and you may be referred to a specialist.
Women at high risk for breast cancer may be advised to have an MRI or ultrasound. According to the CDC, ultrasounds are useful for screening women with dense breast tissue. The ultrasound also is another tool to look at problems found during a mammogram. An ultrasound can be an alternative to using a needle to evaluate a cyst, and the procedure is more affordable than an MRI.
Tomosynthesis, or 3D mammography, allows X-ray images to be taken and viewed in 3D to show problems more clearly. A Tomosynthesis machine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2011.
Women who started an insurance plan after Aug. 1, 2012 are entitled to a mammogram without a co-pay or deductible as part of the Affordable Health Care Act. Florida requires private insurance companies, Medicaid and public employee health plans pay for a baseline mammogram for women ages 35 to 39. Women in their 40s can get free mammograms every two years thereafter and then every year for ages 50 and up, or according to a doctor’s recommendation.
Self-insured health plans, such as those provided by large employers, are not regulated and employees may or may not receive free mammograms as part of their health plan.
Low income, uninsured and under-insured women between the age of 50 and 64 may qualify for a free mammogram at the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, thanks to the Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Most states participate in the program, partially supported by matching funds from the CDC.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 10 million screening exams have been paid for since the program began in 1991, and more than 51,000 breast cancers were found.
Thanks to improvements in detection techniques, education and increased access to screenings by low-income women, “doctors are detecting new cancers at their earliest stages, leading to long-term survival,” according to the American Cancer Society.
In addition, women who practice prevention techniques by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and limiting the amount of alcohol they drink can vastly lower their risk.
The CDC encourages women to get involved and encourage their friends and neighbors to get breast screenings and live healthier lifestyles. Organizations throughout the United States are raising money to help fund research in an attempt to find a cure to end breast cancer forever. Finding a cure has become a national priority.
But, until the cure is found, you are the first line of defense.