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UPMC Doc: Self-awareness key to detecting breast cancer

Breast cancer awareness month is recognized every October, but it is more than just awareness about breast cancer, it is about being self-aware of your breast health.

Some of the risk factors for breast cancer, such as genetics and age, are out of our control. But there are steps you can take to maximize your breast health and minimize your chances of developing breast cancer.

Statistics show that 40% of diagnosed breast cancers are found by women who feel a lump, often during a regular activity like bathing or dressing. However, most breast changes aren’t cancer.

How to do a Self-Exam

Make it a habit to self-check your breast, preferably in front of a mirror without clothes, and look for changes in your breasts. In addition to a quick visual check, you should do a self-exam at the same time each month or at the same time within your regular menstrual cycle.

By checking your breasts regularly, you will notice if something looks or feels different or one area is firmer than during a previous exam. All breasts are different, so it is important to know what your normal is. If you do notice any of the following breast changes, be sure to call your provider:

• Change in the size or shape of the breast

• Dimpling or puckering of the skin

• Itchy, scaly, sore rash on the nipple

• Lump, hard knot, or thickening inside the breast or underarm area

• Nipple changes or discharge that starts suddenly

• New pain in one spot that doesn’t go away

• Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast

• Swelling, warmth, redness, or darkening of the breast

Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer

In addition to regular self-exams, you should reduce your risk of developing breast cancer through screening and lifestyle choices.

If you do not have a personal or family history of breast cancer, you should begin annual screening mammograms at age 40, as recommended by the American Society of Breast Surgeons and American College of Radiology.

Women of higher risk should consider starting screening at an earlier age. If you’re at a higher risk, ask your provider about the screening tests and frequency that’s right for you.

Sometimes preventing a disease can be as simple as taking care of your body. A study by the National Institutes of Health showed that women who followed a healthy lifestyle lowered their breast cancer risk by 25%. Lifestyle choices that can help prevent chronic diseases as well as breast cancer, include:

• Maintain a healthy weight

• Exercise 30 minutes a day

• Limit alcohol use

• Do not smoke

• Limit hormone replacement use

• Eat a healthy diet, rich in green leafy vegetables and fruits, and low in red meat

Be Self-Aware

Breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer in women, but when caught early it is treatable. Know your risk and get to know your body. If you detect something suspicious in your monthly self-exam, contact your provider right away. Remember, lumps are not always cancerous, but it is important to have them checked to ensure you maintain your breast health.

Mohammad Tahir, MD, PhD, is a fellowship trained breast and oncoplastic surgeon at UPMC’s Breast Health Center in Williamsport. For more information, visit UPMCSusquehanna.org/breast.

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