Breast Cancer: Early Detection Can Save Your Life

In 1995 during an annual physical exam at her OB/GYN's office, Beverly Naser learned that she had a lump in her breast.

"When I found out after a biopsy that it was breast cancer, I immediately had thoughts of 'devastation,'" says the Brandenburg, Ky. wife and mother.

"But I also knew that because my doctor had found the lump early, I could be treated and cured. Within a week of finding the lump, I had a biopsy and the lump was removed. Within two weeks of discovering the cancer, I had my breast removed and reconstructive surgery done and I was well on the road to recovery."

Today, Beverly Naser is a breast cancer survivor and proud of it. Her message to other women: "Examine your breasts monthly and have a yearly mammogram. Breast cancer is curable if treated early."

Naser is just one of the growing number of women who find out each year that they have breast cancer.

"Breast cancer has a major impact on American women," says Subhash Sheth, M.D., an oncologist at CARITAS Medical Center and Beverly Nasar's physician. "Approximately 183,000 new breast cancer cases are diagnosed every year. This is a major health problem in the U.S."

Of these newly diagnosed cases, 39,600 women (and 400 men) are expected to die. The majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no known risk factors. Only five to 10 percent of breast cancer occurs in women with a clearly defined genetic predisposition to the disease.

"The major problem with breast cancer is that it is silent," Dr. Sheth says. "It begins as a lump in the breast which is often painless. Up to 90 percent of the time it is diagnosed just by feeling the breast. Only in rare instances -- in less than 10 percent of the cases diagnosed -- does the patient see bleeding, discharge, pain, or changes in the nipple."

"The greatest danger with a lump in the breast is to disregard it," he cautions. "Every woman should examine her breasts monthly. Any lump in the breast is important. If she finds one, she should immediately call her family physician. From there, everything will be set up -- from the mammogram to a biopsy to other appropriate therapies."

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor:

  • A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm that persists through the menstrual cycle.

  • A mass or lump, which may feel as small as a pea.

  • A change in the size, shape or contour of the breast.

  • A blood-stained or clear fluid discharge from the nipple.

  • A change in the feel or appearance of the skin on the breast or nipple.

  • Pain in one spot that does not vary with your monthly cycle Swelling, redness, or warmth that does not go away.

  • An itchy, sore, or scaling area on one nipple.

  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin.

  • A marble-like hardened area under the skin.

Prevention Is Key
While the cause of breast cancer is unknown, some factors may contribute to breast cancer risk, including a person's age, personal health history and diet.

Prevention is the best weapon in the fight against breast cancer. Proper diet and exercise can play an important role. Regular exercise and eating a well-balanced diet reduces estrogen levels, fights obesity, lowers insulin levels and boosts the immune system. Studies show that high levels of alcohol consumption may increase the risk of breast cancer, so drink in moderation.

But early detection is perhaps the most vital important factor in the successful diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. The frightening numbers associated with breast cancer could decrease by 30 percent if all women ages 40- 50 and older had yearly mammograms.

This is why early detection is so important," says Dr. Sheth. "If we are able to diagnose breast cancer in Stage 1 -- meaning that the size of the tumor is less than 2 centimeters -- it's 90 percent curable with surgery and the appropriate therapies. Self-examination is number one, followed by mammogram at age 40 and above."

The following guidelines from the American Cancer Society are important for early detection of breast cancer:

  • Breast self-examinations should be performed at the same time each month, three to five days after your menstrual period ends, when the breasts are less tender. If you have stopped menstruating, perform the exam on the last day of the month.

  • Your monthly breast self-examination should begin by age 20. If you examine your breasts each month, you will become familiar with the shape and feel of your breasts and be more alert to changes.

  • Have clinical breast examinations at least every three years beginning at age 20 and annually after age 40. Clinical breast exams can detect lumps that may not be detected by mammogram.

  • Have an annual screening mammography beginning at age 40. The American Cancer Society recommends having a baseline mammogram at age 35, and a screening mammogram every year after age 40.

What if Breast Cancer Is Discovered?
If breast cancer is found, you and your doctor will develop a treatment plan to remove the breast cancer and reduce the chance of it returning or spreading to a location outside of the breast. In any case, you need to evaluate the pros and cons of each treatment.

The type of treatment recommended will certainly depend on the size and location of the tumor in the breast, the results of lab tests done and the severity of the disease. Your doctor usually considers your age and general health as well, as your feelings about the treatment options.

Remember: You are the most important member of your health care team when it
comes to breast cancer prevention. Along with you, diagnosis and treatment are
best accomplished by a team of experts working together -- and by all means be sure to schedule mammograms regularly.