• Breast Health Awareness

    Breast cancer is the most common cancer found in women, which has increased awareness and fueled the search for a cure. According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 200,000 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed each year, resulting in approximately 40,000 deaths. However, death rates due to breast cancer have declined due to increased awareness and early detection.

    Breast cancer develops when cancer cells grow in the breast. These cancer cells can divide and damage the tissue around them by entering the bloodstream and spreading into other parts of the body, becoming life-threatening. When cancer cells continue to divide, even though no new cells are needed, a tumor is then formed. And, if the tumor is malignant, it is considered breast cancer.

    Most breast cancers are carcinomas, or malignant tumors that grow out of the surface or lining of the glandular tissue of the breast. However, there is also a rare type of breast cancer that is formed in surrounding and supporting tissues, called sarcomas, or lymphomas. The location of the cancer affects both the progression and the treatment of the disease.

    In order to improve breast cancer survival rates, early detection is essential in providing successful treatment. This should include clinical breast exams as part of your yearly physical, during which a doctor can check for any abnormalities. Additionally, women should take it upon themselves to perform a breast self-exam (BSE) for extra precaution. Women over the age of 20 are advised to complete a BSE monthly—preferably a few days after their menstrual cycle has ended. When performing a BSE, be aware of anything new and different, and look for the following:

    • Lumps
    • Nipple discharge
    • Dimpling or thickening of the skin
    • Redness
    • Pain
    • Full feeling in the armpit

    Mammograms are another great way to detect breast cancer early on. A mammogram is a special X-ray that is used to find tumors that are too small to feel. It is essential for every woman over the age of 40 to get a mammogram yearly. The effectiveness of a mammogram depends on the woman’s age, size of the tumor, and breast density. An MRI can be used to recognize the difference between cancer and scar tissue and to search for other lesions not seen on a mammogram. Ultrasounds may also be used to detect breast cancer in those with dense breast tissue.

    Another step in early detection is to be aware of any family history of breast cancer. If there is a significant family history of breast cancer, some women opt to be tested for breast cancer gene mutation (BRCA1). Women with an abnormally high BRCA1 risk are followed closely—with some women choosing to have a mastectomy before the cancer has a chance to develop.

    It is important to be aware of the risk factors associated with breast cancer and to take extra precaution if you should fall into any of these categories:

    • Age 40 or older
    • Overweight, particularly after menopause
    • High alcohol consumption
    • Physical inactivity
    • Increased exposure to estrogen
    • Smoking
    • Family history of breast cancer

    As always, you should talk to your doctor about the most appropriate breast screening for you and to broaden your knowledge about breast health. For more information, visit Lahey Clinic’s Comprehensive Breast Health Center Web site.