Putting Your Breast Health First

A guide to when, how and why to get checked, including tips on breast self-exams.

Breast cancer, like most cancers, doesn’t discriminate by age, race or gender. Though women are far more susceptible, this cancer does occur in men, albeit in small numbers. Each year, over 225,000 women are diagnosed with invasive breast cancer—that’s one in eight women—and over 40,000 of those women will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. It is the most prevalent cancer among American women, aside from skin cancer.

Though women are encouraged to take steps to minimize their risks through early detection, many don’t. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, making it the perfect time to prioritize breast health.

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Breast cancer generally occurs in postmenopausal women, though it can occur in younger women, says Dr. Allison Aggon, a breast surgeon at the Center for Breast Health at Delaware County Memorial Hospital. Since its cause is currently unknown, it’s important for women to take preventative measures.

Breast self-exams are one way to understand your breast health. A woman should perform a breast self-exam “no more than once a month, immediately after a period, or the same time each month,” says Aggon. In doing so, women can feel for abnormalities and familiarize themselves with their breasts, making anything new or unusual easier to detect.

Though there is no standard set of abnormalities, since it’s relative to each person, Aggon advises women to feel for “anything that’s different than the rest of the breast tissue.” That can include a firm lump, skin dimpling or rashes that don’t go away with treatment, inversion of nipples when they aren’t naturally occurring, spontaneous nipple discharge, or a mass that doesn’t go away over the course of a month. If these symptoms persist, it’s recommended that a woman seek medical attention from a primary physician, an ob-gyn, or a breast specialist.

Most organizations advise that women start receiving clinical breast exams at age 25, performed by a medical practitioner. These should take place every one to three years until age 40, when they should be performed annually. Starting at 40, women of average risk should also begin annual mammograms, as recommended by the American Cancer Society.

Because a portion of breast cancer is hereditary—roughly 20 percent—it’s important for a woman to know her family history and whether or not family members have been diagnosed with breast cancer. For those who don’t know their history and have no way of finding out, as is the case with adoption, Aggon encourages women to speak with their doctors to decide a course of action. The Gail model is a breast-cancer risk assessment that can help determine risk by using information like the age she started her menstrual period, the age she hit menopause, and her age when she had her first child.

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For women at higher risk for breast cancer, earlier screenings are often recommended, including starting mammograms sooner. Risk-reduction therapy through medication is also possible.

As for men, though their risk is significantly lower than that of women, they are still susceptible. Aggon advises them to have good self-awareness of what’s normal in their breast region. “Be cognizant of a new mass, skin changes, or nipple symptoms,” she says.

Though there is no way to prevent breast cancer, everybody can take action to help reduce his or her risks, including living a healthy lifestyle by getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, eating well, and not smoking or consuming excessive amounts of alcohol.

Unlike some other cancers, breast cancer can easily go undetected because its symptoms aren’t always palpable, making preventative measures all the more necessary. “Screening is so important,” says Aggon.

So don’t wait. This month, prioritize your breast health and determine a plan of action.

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For a list of local events supporting breast-cancer research, see our Breast Cancer Awareness Month guide. MLT’s 2015 Women on the Move Luncheon takes place Oct. 22 at Drexelbrook, featuring two prominent breast cancer survivors, Tracy Davidson of NBC10 and Dr. Marisa Weiss. Tickets are available here.

Dr. Allison Aggon

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