October is breast cancer awareness month, and it reminds us every year to practice good breast health and receive regular mammograms to protect ourselves. Early detection is always best when it comes to any type of cancer, and a simple mammogram is all we need to detect cancer in our breasts. All women are also encouraged to perform regular self-examinations to look for irregularities. If you find something unusual during one of these self-examinations or even just by chance when you look in the mirror, you’ll probably automatically assume it’s breast cancer. The truth is, it could be a number of different things, so don’t panic.
Don’t get me wrong – any changes in your breasts should be examined by your doctor immediately. However, there is no reason to get worked up over breast pain, nipple discharge, or even a palpable bump. Yes, any of these symptoms could be caused by breast cancer, but you won’t know for sure until you’ve had a diagnostic mammogram, physical exam, and ultrasound. Until then, remember that our breasts are complex and unpredictable organs.
Surprisingly, the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Carefound fair evidence that breast self-examination had no benefit and good evidence that it was harmful because it increased anxiety, physician visits and resulted in higher breast biopsies for benign disease. This group concluded that among women aged 40-69 years, routine teaching of breast self-examination should be excluded from breast cancer screening. However, I believe that breast self-examination has the potential to detect breast cancer that you can feel and still should be recommended.
It’s easy to forget that breasts are not simply sitting on our chest unchanging. They are constantly active, and they are easily affected by our body’s hormonal changes at any given moment. Your breasts will change during your menstrual cycle, during pregnancy, and even during menopause.
Especially in women younger than 40 years of age, changes in your breasts could be caused by benign cysts, mastitis, abscesses, breast hematoma, or a wide variety of non-cancerous tumors that can form in the many areas of such a complex organ. Breast tissue changes will always be alarming, but you should try to stay calm until the results of the test come back. Breast cancer can be fatal, but the many other possible conditions are harmless and will sometimes even go away on their own.
When you notice any changes in your breast, your reaction should should not be to panic and apathy will only kill you. You should certainly call your doctor and set up an appointment right away, but you should not start calling your family members frantically without knowing the entire story. Breast cancer awareness month should remind you to stay on top of your breast health, but it should also remind you to be grateful for all of the time you’ve remained happy and healthy.
- Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.