The ABC's of Breast Health
The most important part of your action plan is having regular mammograms. These simple breast x-rays are quick, easy, and safe. In fact, mammograms use less radiation than a dentist's x-ray.
And a mammogram can give you a big head start on treatment. You and your doctor may not feel a lump until it is the size of a pea. But a mammogram can find cancers when they are very small, often several years before a lump or change can be felt. The American Cancer Society advises having yearly mammograms beginning at age 40.
As you grow older, your chances of having breast cancer will increase. Almost half of all breast cancer occurs in women 65 and older; more than three-quarters of them occur in women 50 and older.
You should become familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel so that if changes occur, you can report them to your doctor right away. You may choose to become familiar with your breasts by doing breast self exams – checking for lumps, thickness, or other changes.
Ask your doctor or nurse to show you how to do the exam correctly. As a reminder, if you do breast self-exam, you check each breast all over and include the armpit. Use your finger pads and move them in a small circular motion using different amounts of pressure (light, medium, and deep) to feel the entire breast. Look at your breast in front of a mirror to check for any changes in how your breasts look or for dimpling of the skin.
Plan to examine your breasts at the same time every month. It won't take long. And you'll know you've done your part until your next doctor's exam and mammogram. If you think you have found a lump or change, see your doctor. Most breast lumps are not cancer, but you won't know if you don't ask.
You'll need to see your doctor or nurse for a clinical breast exam. All women in their 20s and 30s should have a breast exam as part of their regular health checkups at least every three years. After the age of 40, have a breast exam every year.
What makes a good clinical breast exam?
Every breast exam by your doctor or nurse should include:
• Taking a personal health history, including asking about any breast changes or problems, and taking a family history and asking about family members who have had breast cancer
• Looking at your breasts while you are standing in front of a mirror with your hands pressing down on your hips
• Examining the entire breast, up to the neck, into the armpit, over to the center of the chest, and to the bottom of the rib cage
• Examining the breast using a vertical strip (up and down) pattern to make sure that no breast tissue is missed
• Using different amounts of pressure to examine the breast (light, medium, and deep)
• Discussing your breast health plan with you and showing you the proper way to
examine your own breasts
A thorough clinical breast exam can take up to 10 minutes. Talk to your doctor if you feel that your exam was incomplete or rushed.