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Breast Cancer: Steps to finding breast lumps early


Published: Oct 11, 2013

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I almost cried when I was ordered to get my first mammogram.  To think that I was at risk for this life-threatening, painful disease.

One of our best ways to fight any cancer is early detection, and this is especially true for breast cancer.  This makes treatment much easier and more effective (not to mention cheaper).

How can you find breast cancer early?

The best way, so far, to find breast lumps that may be cancer is to do two things:

1. Have regular mammograms (every one to two years).

2. Have your family medicine specialist check your breasts every year at your annual physical.

BRCA genes?

A few women, with risk factors such as a history of two or more first degree family members having breast or ovarian cancer under age 40, may need to be tested for the BRCA gene.  Your family medical doctor can determine if you need a test for the BRCA gene which runs in these families.  Currently studies are being done in The Bahamas by Dr. Turnquest and Dr. Curling, both cancer specialists, to determine when women in The Bahamas should have BRCA gene tests, and how to treat the results.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is the most effective way to find breast cancer early, up to two years before the lump is even large enough to feel.  It is a special kind of x-ray of your breasts.  A radiologist will look at the x-rays for signs of cancer or other breast problems.  Because the amount of radiation used in the x-ray is very small, mammograms are safe.

Do mammograms hurt?  Mammograms can be uncomfortable.

In order to get a good picture, the breast has to be squeezed.

How often should I get a mammogram?  According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, American women should start routine mammograms at 45.  According to the Canadian Academy of Family Physicians, Canadian women should start their routine mammograms at 50, and usually every one to two years.

This depends on your risks.  According to Dr. Curling, the average Bahamian woman should start screening for breast cancer at the age of 40.  If you have a positive family history for breast cancer, you should be screened 10 years before the age of the person or relative when they were diagnosed.  If you are under 25 years old, your best test may be an MRI or ultrasound.

How often should my family medical specialist check my breasts?

You should have a breast exam in addition to a mammogram every year, depending on your risk.

What is the doctor checking for? The main thing to look for is any change in your breasts.  It’s normal for your breasts to be different sizes.  A firm ridge in the lower curve of your breast is also normal.

Changes to look for in your breasts

• Any new lump which may not be painful or tender.

• Unusual thickening of your breasts.

• Sticky or bloody discharge from your nipples.

• Any changes in the skin of your nipples or breasts, such as puckering or dimpling.

• An unusual increase in the size of one breast.

• One breast unusually lower than the other.

If you want to check your breasts, do the exam a few days after your period.

What are some risk factors for breast cancer?

• Having had breast cancer increases your risk of developing it again.

• A family history of certain types of breast cancer, particularly in your mother, daughter or sister.

• Having a genetic defect in the BRCA1/BRCA2 gene.

• Heavy alcohol use: Having more than three drinks a day raises your risk for breast cancer as much as smoking a pack of cigarettes does.

• Eating lots of red meat: Women who eat more than one serving of red meat a day, especially post-menopausal women, have a more than 50 percent increased risk of breast cancer.  Women, who eat processed meat (bacon, sausage, bologna, and ham, etc.) daily increase their risk for breast cancer to more than 60 percent.  Studies show that eating more fiber can help to decrease the risks associated with red meat consumption

• Obesity: It increases your risk for breast cancer, also cancer of the uterus, colon, kidney, and the esophagus, not to mention it increases your risk for hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke.  Avoiding weight gain is an effective way to decrease these risks.

• Race: White women have an overall increased rate.  Among women 40 to 50 years old, African-American women have a higher rate and death rate.

• I encourage you to get your physical done yearly and adapt some healthy lifestyle changes, for yourselves and also as an example to our children.

I would also like to dedicate this article to my auntie Beverly Lockhart who fought breast cancer tooth and nail.

Dr. Chinyere Bullard is a family medicine specialist.

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