Your guide to breast cancer screenings
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. With this health holiday comes a sea of pink you will see everywhere: on social media, at sporting events and in stores.
The pink explosion is a reminder that breast cancer is all around us: about one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
To help you wade through conflicting information and stay on track with your breast cancer screenings, we asked Janelle Guirguis-Blake, MD, a family doctor at Tacoma Family Medicine and a clinical professor of family medicine at the University of Washington to go over the latest recommendations.
These recommendations are based on information from the ACS, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).
Breast self-exam (BSE) is an option for women starting in their 20s.
The ACOG recommends breast self awareness, which can include breast self-examination, Dr. Guirguis-Blake says.
However, teaching breast self-examination may not necessarily decrease breast cancer-related mortality, she says. And it definitely increases women’s anxiety and the number of biopsies performed.
What’s most important is to be aware of how your breasts normally look and feel and let your doctor know of any changes right away, such as skin changes, lumps or pain.
“I tell women that they should not feel guilty if they do not do regular self-breast exams,” says Dr. Guirguis-Blake.
If you are interested in learning how to perform BSEs, a good opportunity is during annual preventive visits, where a clinical breast exam is performed by your provider.
The ACS also provides a step-by-step guide here.
Women in their 20s and 30s should have a clinical breast exam (CBE) every 1–3 years by their health care professional.
A clinical breast exam (CBE), done by a health care professional, is recommended every 1 to 3 years for women ages 20–39 years and annually for women 40 and older.
A CBE gives women a chance to speak to their providers about any problems or changes that they have noticed. It is also a good time to ask about breast self-exam techniques and to discuss risk factors that may increase your chance of getting breast cancer.
Dr. Guirguis-Blake says her clinical practice is to offer CBEs to all women 20 years and older after assessing their risk for breast cancer during preventive visits.
“Because I believe that any screening test should be strongly encouraged in patients at risk for disease, I discuss the risk of breast cancer with my patients and help them make a decision about when they would like to start having clinical breast examinations,” she says.
Women age 40 and older should have a mammogram yearly and continue to do so as long as they are in good health.
Mammograms, or X-rays of the breast, are recommended starting at age 40.
Research shows that mammograms decrease breast cancer-related deaths, Dr. Guirguis-Blake says.
“Good evidence shows that mammography saves women's lives, so I focus on the mammogram as the single most important screening test for breast cancer,” she says.
Some women may choose to wait until after age 50 to start screening with mammography based on their family history and risk factors for breast cancer.
Ultimately, women should talk to their doctors to determine the best course of action, Dr. Guirguis-Blake says.
“The higher a woman's risk of breast cancer, the more likely she will benefit from screening,” she says. “Each woman should make a choice about when to start screening based on an informed discussion with her doctor.”
Her Peace of Mind
If you’re concerned about paying for a mammogram, MultiCare offers a program to help.
Her Peace of Mind is a mammography voucher program for woman needing assistance in paying for their mammograms. Funds also support community education and outreach in an effort to save lives and ease the journey for newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.
For more information, call 253-697-4927.
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Roxanne Cooke tells stories in words, photos and video.More stories by this author