In the interest of complete disclosure, I found my own breast cancer when I was 41. Did I do regular breast exams? No – but I knew something didn’t feel right.
I’m a big believer in women’s intuition. From the time we go through adolescence, most women assume a kind of stoic awareness of their own bodies – with the first period, we have become aware that our bodies may be doing things that we need to be aware of and that paying attention might be a good idea.
With that in mind, I’d like to try to address some questions and comments about breast self-examination that I’ve heard from my own patients.
I get mammograms – why do I need to do this?
Mammograms are just one part of the triad for catching breast cancer early. The triad consists of a clinical breast exam (by a healthcare provider), mammograms, and breast self-exam. With all of us working together – the woman herself, the physician or other provider, and the radiologist – we can often catch things earlier. Earlier is always better.
I don’t know what I’m feeling for. My breasts always feel lumpy.
You are only looking for something changing. If you can become at least a little familiar with how your breasts normally feel, then you’ll have more of a sense if there is something new. Lumpiness can be normal – it’s the new lumps that should be checked out.
I don’t have any family history of breast cancer.
It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that the lifetime chance of breast cancer is so high and yet many people’s family history doesn’t reflect that. Keep in mind that the reason may be that the family history is incomplete – we may not know about older generations that have had breast cancer. One woman I know in her 60’s found out after her mother had died from something else, that earlier in her life, her mother had a lump removed that none of her children ever knew about. If you had breast cancer early in life and then died from an automobile accident, would your children ever know that you had dealt with breast cancer? Unless you can be 100% sure of your family history, you may want to accept that there may be cases of breast cancer in your family that you just don’t know about.
How do I know if something’s wrong?
In general, we go through life concentrating on life and not on our breasts. If you’ve been living with your breasts for years and now you have one that you notice or is bothering you or doesn’t feel right (or you’re just not sure), then that is something you should get checked out.
The important thing is to trust your intuition. Breast Cancer month helps to bring awareness to the many ways that we can help ourselves detect breast cancer as early as possible. Studies have shown that women who perform breast self-examination will detect breast cancer when it is smaller and at an earlier stage – and THAT can be the difference between celebrating survivor anniversaries and missing them.