Early detection is critical and breast exams are your first line of defense against breast cancer. Performing self-exams, completing an annual clinical breast exam and screening mammography can identify changes in your breasts early on when they are most treatable. If you are unsure of how to perform a breast exam at home, a provider can offer you guidance at your next appointment or screening.
Understanding when to begin screening can be tricky because the type of exam and frequency between screenings varies for each person. Obstetrician/Gynecologist (OB/GYN) and member of our High Risk Breast Clinic, Shaunda Chin-Bonds, DO, answers common questions about risk factors, family history and when to begin screening for breast cancer.
What if one of my relatives (mom, sister, grandmother) has been diagnosed with breast cancer?
If you have a family history of breast cancer (on either side of your family), especially when it is a first-degree relative like your mom or sister, you should notify your primary care physician. This information helps your physician develop a screening schedule that is right for you. For those with a family history of breast cancer, genetic testing may be recommended. Genetic testing is a more in-depth assessment of your overall risk and can determine whether you are a carrier of the BRCA gene*.
*The BRCA gene has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. If you test positive for the BRCA gene, your physician may refer you to a breast surgeon for further evaluation and to discuss preventive treatment options.
What if no one in my family has had breast cancer? Am I still at risk?
Family history is only one of the risk factors associated with breast cancer. It is possible to develop breast cancer even when no one else in your family has had it. Other factors that come into play include your diet, weight, lifestyle factors such as exercise and alcohol consumption and your reproductive history.
What if I want to reduce my risk? Is there anything I can do to prevent breast cancer?
While it may not be possible to totally prevent breast cancer, the good news is there are several ways you can reduce your risk. Be proactive about your health. Discuss your family history with your primary care physician and stay up-to-date on all recommended screenings. You can also reduce your risk with lifestyle modifications such as following a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption are two ways to significantly reduce your risk.
What if I have denser breast tissue? How does that impact my screenings and my overall risk?
Denser breast tissue, defined as a“C” or“D” density score, can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. It can also make detection more difficult because both dense tissue and tumors appear white on mammogram images. Dense breast tissue may also obstruct the radiologist’s view, making abnormalities harder to spot. As an added precaution, additional imaging may be recommended, such as a breast ultrasound.
What if I notice changes in my breast or feel a lump?
Any time you notice changes with your breasts, you should notify your primary care physician. Your physician will perform a breast exam and order additional testing if necessary. It is important to remember that developing lumps and other changes with size and sensitivity don’t always mean cancer. These symptoms can be caused by a variety of factors such as your hormones or menstrual cycle. The sooner you alert your physician to any changes, the faster you can begin treatment if needed – regardless of the cause.
What if I am nervous about getting a mammogram? Will it hurt?
Many women are nervous about completing their first mammogram. As with any aspect of your care, I encourage patients to share their concerns with their physician and ask questions to feel comfortable about your care plan. It can also be helpful to speak with friends and family members who have had a mammogram.
The technician performing your exam can be a great resource, answer questions and guide you through what you can expect throughout your exam. If you experience any pain during your exam, let your technician know. A mammogram can be a bit uncomfortable, but it is a critical part of maintaining your breast health.
What if I receive a call back after my mammogram and need additional testing or a breast biopsy?
If you receive a call back after your screening mammogram, don’t panic. There are many reasons why you may be asked to come in for additional testing. In some cases, the technician may not have been able to get adequate views or the radiologist may want to re-examine a particular area of breast tissue. If an abnormality is identified, a breast biopsy can be completed with a breast surgeon, or one of our radiologist that specialize in breast imaging, to determine whether a growth is cancerous or benign.
What if I am diagnosed with breast cancer?
Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. You will likely experience a wide range of emotions and have a lot of questions. To provide you with the care and support you will need, your physician will work closely with a breast surgeon, medical and/or a radiation oncologist to develop a treatment plan based on your overall health and specific cancer case.
While it is not uncommon to feel anxious about getting your first mammogram or to be overwhelmed by a breast cancer diagnosis, it is important to remember you aren’t alone. Talking to family, friends and your physician about your concerns can help you feel more prepared and well-informed, no matter where you are in your breast health journey.
During the month of October, in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness month, we want to make screening as easy as possible. That’s why we are offering free clinical breast exams with a nurse practitioner throughout the month at several of our suburban Chicago locations. To schedule your exam, call 331−551−5473 or click here for more information.