Get your ready: “Pinktober” is here. This month, major breast cancer charities and health advocates bring awareness to the disease with pink ribbons, fundraising walks, and educational campaigns. But October’s biggest awareness movement is about so much more: teaching everyone about prevention and treatment of breast cancer so we lose fewer and fewer of our loved ones to this disease.
It’s estimated that over 40,000 women in the U.S. will die from breast cancer this year.1 As many as one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over her lifetime.1 Right now, there are more than 3.1 million women in our country who have a history of this horrible disease.1 And men can get breast cancer, too. The American Cancer Society estimates that 2,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer in men will be diagnosed this year.2
Catching cancer early
Breast cancer starts when cells begin growing quickly to form a tumor. If cancerous—or malignant—the tumor invades surrounding tissue or spreads further into the body. The best case scenario for treatment is finding it early by self-exam of the breast while the lump is small, or on an X-ray known as a mammogram.
If you feel uncomfortable about the idea of examining your own breasts in this way, rest assured: you’re not alone. But as you do these exams more regularly, you’ll get more familiar with the process and view it as a way to take charge of your health, says Teladoc expert Patricia L. Dawson, MD, Surgical Oncologist in Breast Cancer, Medical Director of the Breast Program, and Chief Breast Surgical Service at the Swedish Cancer Institute. According to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, 40 percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump.3
No excuses: The Mayo clinic offers a simple tutorial, so start doing self-exams every month at the end of your period. If you do feel a lump, try not to panic. You’ll want to see a doctor, but about 80 percent of lumps are not cancerous.4
In addition to a breast lump, changes in breast shape, nipple discharge, a rash, redness, or skin thickening should prompt you to reach out to a doctor, says Dr. Dawson, noting that localized pain can sometimes be a concern, too. Many women don’t have any symptoms of breast cancer though, which is why regular screening tests are so important.
Screening is the best way to detect breast cancer early, which improves survival. Determining when and how often you are screened is based on your risk, estimated by personal health and family history. Screening recommendations can be a bit confusing, Dr. Dawson admits, since different medical organizations publish different advice on the matter.
For a woman without family history of breast or ovarian cancer, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) says to get a mammogram every two years from age 50 to 74, and that she can discuss with her doctor the option of starting at age 40, an “excellent option,” Dr. Dawson says. Many women do decide to start mammograms at age 40. For a woman who does have a first-degree relative with the disease or another high-risk factor like the BRCA gene, she should get a mammogram and breast MRI every year, typically starting at age 30, the American Cancer Society recommends.5 There are risk assessment tools that will help you figure out exactly where your risk for breast cancer lies. Then you and your doctor can discuss the right screening schedule for you.
Abnormal finding: now what?
Mammograms can sometimes miss cancers, but digital mammograms and tomosynthesis (3D) technologies are more sensitive, especially for women with dense breast tissue. If your exam does show something abnormal, your doctor may suggest other tests like a follow-up mammogram to magnify the area or an ultrasound. From there, the physician will decide whether you need a biopsy.
If there is any question about the imaging finding, it may be useful for you to get a second opinion from another breast radiologist, Dr. Dawson notes, but there shouldn’t be much difference in diagnoses due to how standardized breast imaging is. To get a sample of the suspicious area, your healthcare provider will do a core-needle biopsy, then a pathologist will view the sample under a microscope. The results will help determine your treatment plan.
The pathology is very important, so it can be useful to get a second opinion on the treatment and the follow-up recommendations, Dr. Dawson says. You’ll have to share your medical records and reports to experts who will review the entire case and provide a recommendation on the diagnosis and treatment. Especially in the case of cancer, second opinions are common and often critical.
If you’re facing medical uncertainty with a breast cancer diagnosis, a specialist in our pool of 50,000 medical experts can review your records to make sure you’re lined up for the best treatment possible. Log in to your account today to request an Expert Medical Opinion to be sure you’re making the most informed decisions about your medical care.
This October, don’t just think pink. Think proactively about your health—with confidence.
Check out more on cancer diagnosis