October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month!
In this post:
- Introduction – Why Screening Matters
- Breast Cancer Symptoms & Risk Factors
- About Mammograms
- Community resources
You’ve no doubt seen the pink ribbons that make a fresh resurgence every year around this time of year, and maybe you already know that they represent the breast cancer awareness movement, but do you know why?
Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer among American women, second only to skin cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the United States about 240,000 women get breast cancer, and 42,000 die from the disease. Most breast cancers are found in women ages 50 and older, but it can appear in younger women, particularly those with high risk factors. Breast cancer does not discriminate, either – men can also get breast cancer, though it is much less likely, and so can transgender men and women. Transgender men who have not had bilateral mastectomies (“top surgery”) are just as likely as a cisgendered woman to get breast cancer, and transgender women who have had hormone treatment for five years or more may need to get mammograms.
Like many forms of cancer, breast cancer is much more easily treated and less likely to be fatal the earlier it is caught. The pink ribbons are there to remind us that breast cancer exists, but more importantly, that it can easily be screened and caught early with a regular mammogram.
Encourage your loved ones to get breast cancer screening, particularly those aged 50 and older. If you have a history of breast or ovarian cancer in your family, or have BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations, talk to your doctor about getting a mammogram or other form of breast cancer screening earlier.
Breast Cancer Symptoms & Risk Factors
In addition to regular screening, it’s important to know the symptoms of breast cancer so you can go to the doctor if you recognize any of them on your body. The symptoms of breast cancer include:
- A change in the size or shape of your breast
- A new lump in the breast or underarm
- Pain in any area of the breast, particularly if persistent
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
It’s also important to know the risk factors for breast cancer so you and your doctor can determine when to start your screening. Some risk factors for breast cancer screening are outside of your control and have to do with genetics and aging. Others you can reduce with lifestyle changes, diet changes, or medication changes. Here is a list of risk factors for breast cancer:
- Getting older – most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50
- Having a history of breast cancer or certain non-cancer breast diseases
- Having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer
- Genetic mutations – inherited changes to certain genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2)
- Starting menstruation before age 12
- Starting menopause after age 55
- Having dense breasts (common in transgender women)
- Exposure to radiation therapy or the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES)
- Not being physically active
- Being overweight or having obesity after menopause
- Taking hormone therapy
- Being pregnant after age 30, not breastfeeding, or never having a full-term pregnancy
- High alcohol use
Mammograms are the most common form of breast cancer screening. A mammogram is an x-ray image of the breast which is used to detect the presence of cancer. It can be more difficult to interpret a mammogram of dense breast tissue, so additional imaging may be required.
The process of a mammogram is simple, but it can be uncomfortable. You will stand in front of an x-ray machine and have your breast placed on a plastic plate, while another plate presses it firmly and an image is taken. The process is repeated for a side view and then again on the other breast. The doctor who ordered the mammogram will tell you the results once they have been reviewed by a radiologist, and it can take a few days to a few weeks for the results to be interpreted, reported to your doctor, and then relayed to you by you.
To reduce the discomfort from a mammogram, avoid scheduling it the week before or during your menstrual period—breasts are more sensitive at that time. Remember, the discomfort is only for a few seconds, and much more temporary than breast cancer treatment!
For a more pleasant mammogram experience, women also recommend wearing a top with a skirt or pants rather than a dress since you’ll have to undress from your waist up. Mammogram technologists also recommend not wearing deodorant, perfume, or powder, as these can cause distortions of the x-ray image.
If your mammogram is abnormal, that doesn’t always mean you have cancer. You may be asked to repeat your mammogram, or get a breast ultrasound or MRI before you are referred out to a specialist for additional diagnosis.
Your primary care provider is your first stop for ordering a mammogram. At Interior Community Health Center, we can help you with financial resources, including enrollment in the Alaska Breast & Cervical Cancer Screening Assistance Program (ABC), previously known as Ladies First. This program can help you get a mammogram and cervical cancer screening for low or no cost to you, depending on your household size and income. Transgender men and women can also be also eligible for benefits if they have been taking hormones and have not had top surgery.
We recommend you start by scheduling a Well Woman exam with your primary care provider. At ICHC, we will talk to you about your cancer screening recommendations, and can perform cervical cancer screening at the same appointment. We’ll help you apply for the ABC program if you qualify and will order a mammogram and communicate the results to you when we receive them.
To schedule an appointment with your doctor at Interior Community Health Center, call 907-455-4567, option 1.
If you want to skip the primary care stop (odd choice after reading this entire article by a primary care clinic, but you do you!), you can certainly do so. The Breast Cancer Detection Center can help you get access to a mammogram without first seeing a primary care doctor. They’ll tell you to come see your primary care doctor afterward, though, especially if you’re due for cervical cancer screening, too!