During October, breast cancer “awareness” is something we frequently hear. But what does this exactly mean, to be “aware” and of what?
This confusion is further confounded by the often changing recommendations for breast cancer screening. The goal of breast cancer screening is to save lives and detect breast cancer before patients become “aware” of its presence.
Mammography remains the gold standard for screening for breast cancer. Annual mammography has been shown to reduce breast cancer deaths by 35 percent in women ages 40 and older, saving thousands of lives each year. With any screening test, however, there are limitations and mammography is no exception.
The mammogram is not perfect and will not pick up every cancer at an early stage. This can be confusing for patients who assume that a “negative” report means that they do not have breast cancer. A negative report only means that no signs of cancer are seen on that mammogram.
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This is where “breast awareness” also plays a key role in the detection of breast cancer, particularly in patients younger than 40. It is extremely important for patients to be familiar with how their breasts look and feel normally.
Patients should see their doctor if they notice any new lump or area of thickening in their breast or under their arm, even if the area just feels “firmer” and especially if it appears to be getting larger.
Any changes in the shape or size of your breast should be reported. Some cancers tend to grow in a pattern that does not produce a noticeable change on the mammogram but can cause the breast to shrink in size or feel firmer. Also, if cancers develop in a dense area, the mammogram may not look different but the patient may notice the area feels different or larger.
Any changes in the appearance of the nipple or areas where the skin seems to be pulling in or puckering should be reported. A discharge from the nipple that is bloody or clear in color, especially if it is happening without the nipple being squeezed, is a sign of concern as well.
In addition, breast swelling, redness or warmth can be a sign of infection but rarely is caused by cancer. Any of these changes should be reported to your doctor, even if you had a recent screening mammogram that was “negative.”
Dr. Angela Moore, a breast radiologist, is medical director of Baptist Health Lexington Breast Imaging.