October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to increase awareness and promote regular screening and early detection of breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer among U.S. women, right after skin cancer, and is their second leading cause of death. According to the National Cancer Institute, women have about a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer at some time during their lives.
For many women, early-stage breast cancer is asymptomatic, which means they do not have any warning signs or symptoms. That’s why preventive health screenings, like mammograms and annual well-woman exams with your family medicine doctor or gynecologist, are so important. With regular monitoring, your doctor can identify, diagnose and treat breast cancer before it becomes untreatable. Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer while it is still in the early stages have an extremely good chance of being cured.
What is an annual well-woman exam?
A well-woman exam is an annual physical conducted to monitor not only your reproductive health but your breast health as well. It’s a vital part of identifying serious health concerns before they become life-threatening. During a well-woman exam, your doctor will perform a visual and manual exam of your breasts. If they notice anything unusual, they will likely recommend a mammogram or breast ultrasound.
How to check for breast cancer at home
Breast cancer awareness should last long after your annual well-woman exam. While your doctor examines your breasts and nearby lymph nodes once a year, that’s not enough to keep you safe. Every woman should perform a breast self-exam about 3-5 days after her period starts every month. Here’s how to check for breast cancer at home:
- First, stand in front of a mirror with your shoulders back and your hands on your hips and look for any changes in the size, shape and color of your breasts. They should be evenly shaped and have no visible signs of distortion or swelling. If you notice any of the following, visit your family medicine doctor or gynecologist right away:
- Dimpling, puckering or bulging of the skin
- A nipple that has changed position or becomes inverted (pushed inward)
- Redness, soreness, rash or swelling
- Second, raise your arms directly over your head and check for the same changes as well as any signs of discharge (clear, white or opaque, yellow, red or brown fluid) coming out of one or both nipples.
- Next, find a comfortable and private spot to lie down. Raise your right hand over your head and place the first three fingers of your left hand (fingers flat and together) on your right breast. While making small circular motions, firmly but smoothly move your fingers around your breast, being sure to cover the entire breast from the collarbone to the top of the abdomen and from the armpit to the cleavage. You can alternate between low, medium and high pressure as you move across your breast to ensure you feel all the tissue from the front to the back of the breast.
- Last, return to a standing position and reexamine the breasts again, using the same hand movements as described in step three.
Signs and symptoms of breast cancer
While early-stage breast cancer may not present with symptoms, as it progresses, many women experience the following:
- Breast discomfort
- Inverted nipples
- Change in the shape, size or texture of the nipple or breast
- Red or swollen lymph nodes
- Lump in the breast
- Bloody discharge from the nipple
What to do if you find a lump
The first thing you should do if you find a lump in your breast is to take a deep breath and try not to panic. In truth, most women have some lumps or lumpy areas in their breasts all the time and most abnormal breast lumps turn out to be benign (noncancerous). Next, we recommend scheduling an appointment with one of the skilled Premier family medicine doctors at Pomona Valley Health Center. If they confirm your diagnosis, they will refer you to the Robert & Beverly Lewis Cancer Care Center at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center, which offers high-quality and nationally recognized cancer care services.
If you’d like to learn more about breast cancer awareness or schedule a well-woman exam, mammogram or another physical exam, call Pomona Valley Health Center at 909-378-9143. The board-certified Premier Family Medicine physicians at Pomona Valley Health Centers are highly experienced and skilled in the science of medicine and the art of compassionate care.