Breast cancer, the most common disease among women in the United States, accounts for nearly one of every three cancers diagnosed. You no doubt know someone in your family or circle of friends and acquaintances who has been touched by this disease. Even though the vast majority of breast cancers occur in women, men are at risk as well.
Breast cancer is a disease that begins in the tissue of the breast. Sections of the breast known as lobes are divided into smaller lobules, which have bulbs capable of producing milk. Passageways called ducts connect these structures and eventually lead to the nipple. The spaces around the lobules and ducts are filled with fatty tissue as well as blood vessels and lymph vessels. The lymph vessels lead to small organs called lymph nodes, which are found under the arm, above the collarbone and in the chest (as well as many other parts of the body).
By year's end, more than 180,000 women throughout the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Sadly, about 40,000 women will die from this disease in the coming year. That is the bad news. The good news is that because of medical advancements in diagnosing and treating cancer, there are approximately 2.5 million breast cancer survivors!
Yet many women refuse to take a proactive role against breast cancer and ignore the situation completely. Just being a female is the greatest risk factor for breast cancer. Yes, increasing in age and family history are other risk factors - and it can and does touch women of all races and ages. In fact, 90-95 percent of all breast cancers are found in women with no family history of the disease. That is why it is important to be vigilant.
There are things you can do to greatly reduce your chances of developing breast cancer. You can include regular exercise in your daily routine; eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet; avoid smoking; and use alcohol in moderation.
If you are 40 years of age or older, please get a mammogram and have a clinical breast exam every year. And don't forget the importance of monthly breast self-exams. If you are between the ages of 20 and 39, make certain you perform a monthly breast self-exam and have a clinical breast examination by your health care professional every three years.
Most breast lumps are benign; that is, they are not cancerous. Benign breast tumors are abnormal growths that do not spread outside of the breast and they are not life-threatening. But some benign breast lumps can increase a woman's future risk of getting breast cancer so it is important to have regular breast exams.
That is why mammograms are important. A mammogram, a low-dose X-ray that helps find a cancerous tumor before you feel it during a monthly breast self-exam, gives the woman (or man) a crucial head start on potentially lifesaving treatments. That makes this test one of the most powerful protections a person has against dying from breast cancer.
But there is a caveat to that statement. For maximum protection, a woman needs to have mammograms on a regular schedule. Occasional mammograms simply do not provide enough protection against advanced breast cancer. Studies suggest that regular mammograms can decrease a woman's risk of dying from breast cancer by roughly 30 percent.
Mammography is now available as a digital test at Battle Creek Health System's Mary Coleman Mammography Center. While the procedure for taking the images is the same for traditional film and digital mammograms, the digital images are recorded and processed on a computer. They offer faster and more accurate images for physicians to read, and also the ability to enhance, magnify and manipulate them for further evaluation.
Remember, early detection can save your life or the life of someone you love. If you have not already done so, please talk with your physician about scheduling your mammogram today. Early detection is the key to survival.
If you would like more information about breast cancer, stop by the American Cancer Society Resource Library in The Cancer Care Center or call the BCHS breast nurse navigator at 269-966-8647.
Dr. Wendy French and Dr. Sue Tobin are medical oncologists with The Cancer Care Center at Battle Creek Health System.