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Breast Health: Is It About More Than Just Preventing Cancer?

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Breast Health: Is It About More Than Just Preventing Cancer?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. While the emphasis is on recognizing the early signs of breast cancer and cancer prevention, it’s important to understand overall breast health.

When you hear the phrase “breast health,” do you know what it means? We most commonly associate breast health with breast cancer, but did you know there are other conditions that can affect the breasts other than cancer?

What is breast health?

Breast health is an awareness of what is normal regarding your breasts. It’s important to know how to perform your breast self-exam, what to expect from the exam, and how to recognize an abnormality compared to what is normal.

It is not uncommon for the breasts to feel very lumpy, which makes many women hesitant about doing their self-exam. When she first starts performing monthly self-exams, it is difficult for a woman to know what is normal versus what is abnormal, but over time, she will begin to recognize the normal texture of her breasts. Regular, monthly self-exams will help you learn to recognize the difference between the normal texture of your breast, and an abnormal texture, which may make the difference between early detection and late-stage diagnosis of breast cancer.

Are there other conditions that can affect the breasts besides cancer?

Cancer is not the only condition to affect the breasts. The most common condition affecting breast health is fibrocystic breasts or “fibrocystic change.” This condition is so common it affects more than 50 percent of women.

Fibrocystic change is the effect of hormones on the breasts. It may manifest as pain, tenderness or lumpiness of the breast and symptoms may be exaggerated in the premenstrual phase. Most commonly, cysts associated with fibrocystic change present similarly to cancer in that a woman may feel a lump in her breast.

During a self-exam and even a mammogram, it is nearly impossible to differentiate between a cyst and a solid tumor. Fibrocystic change is often seen in the mammogram as calcification, which can be confused with cancer. The only way to differentiate between cancer and a cyst is through an ultrasound exam that would show that a cyst is containing fluid versus a tumor, which is a solid mass on the breast. Sometimes a biopsy is necessary to determine if a mass on the breast is cancer or a cyst.

Treatment of fibrocystic change depends on the size of the cysts. Many times, small cysts can be left alone while large or painful cysts can be aspirated with a needle. There is no need for surgery with fibrocystic change.

How can I lower my risk of developing breast cancer?

Breast cancer can affect both men and women. Though sometimes it is considered a disease of “luck,” there are risk factors that can contribute to breast cancer. Though you may not be able to prevent developing cancer altogether, Cooper Clinic suggests these seven tips for lowering your breast cancer risk:

  1. Watch your alcohol intake. Alcohol can increase your risk of developing cancer. To lower your risk, do not drink more than one alcoholic drink per day.
  2. Don’t smoke.  Giving up smoking has numerous health benefits, but it can also reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.
  3. Manage your weight. Obesity is linked to breast cancer. Like giving up smoking, there are other benefits to keep your weight within a normal range, but reducing breast cancer is one of them.
  4. Exercise regularly. Exercise has been shown to lower the risk of breast cancer. As a general rule, exercise four to five days a week for at least 30 minutes a day.
  5. Breastfeed your baby. Research has shown that women who breastfeed may lower their risk of breast cancer.
  6. Limit dosage of hormonal replacement drugs. Dosage and duration of hormonal therapy drugs may increase your risk of breast cancer. Limit your dosage and the period of time you take such medications to reduce your risk of breast cancer.
  7. Know your family history. Knowing which (if any) members of your family have had breast cancer, including men, and the age of their diagnosis is extremely important in assessing your own risk. Though you cannot control your family medical history, if there is a history of breast cancer in your family, your doctor may recommend you start annual mammogram screenings at an earlier age than women without a family history of breast cancer.

What about recent news reports that women should get mammograms at an earlier age?

Recent news reports suggest women should start having mammograms sooner than previously recommended. Cooper Clinic recommends that a woman go in for her first baseline mammogram between the ages of 35 and 39. If she has a family history of breast cancer, she may need to begin annual screening at an earlier age.

It’s also important to understand the different between a screening mammogram and a diagnostic mammogram. A screening mammogram is appropriate for a woman with no symptoms of cancer or fibrocystic change. From age 40 and beyond, all women should receive an annual mammogram. If a woman has symptoms of cancer, a diagnostic mammogram will be necessary to determine next steps in diagnosis and treatment.

While breast cancer is not the only condition to affect the breasts, other breast health concerns, such as fibrocystic change will only be identified if you are performing regular self-exams and are keeping up with your routine mammograms. If you have any questions about your breast health, do not hesitate to consult with your physician.

Article provided by Cooper Aerobics Marketing and Communications.