By Maria A. Palafox, MD

Despite an increased effort to find a cure, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among U.S. women.  This year, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, approximately 211,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and about 43,000 will die of the disease.  If detected early, however, the five-year survival rate is greater than 95 percent.  The best method of early detection is by getting a mammogram.  While regular self-examinations are effective in early detection, mammograms can detect breast cancer at an average of one to three years before a woman can feel the lump.

Women under the age of 40 aren’t recommended for mammograms, but they are encouraged to do self-examinations monthly and receive annual clinical examinations from a physician Women should begin self-examinations of their breasts at age 20 and should continue to do so every year after.  Women should also receive breast examinations by an experienced physician beginning at age 20 and receive them every three years thereafter until age 40, when they are recommended yearly.  When doing self-examinations, women should look for any abnormal changes in their breasts.  Several changes that indicate a strong likelihood of breast cancer include:

  • A lump, which is usually single, firm and painless when touched;
  • A puckering found on any part of the breast surface;
  • Veins on the skin surface that are more prominent in one breast;
  • Any swelling of the skin on the breast or underarm;
  • Any redness or pitting of the skin over the breast, much like the skin on an orange; and
  • A new indentation or retraction of the nipple.

Women should also look for any discharge from the nipple other than breast milk, such as blood or a green drainage.  If any of these symptoms occur, contact a physician immediately for a clinical examination and to schedule a mammogram.

A mammogram is a type of X-ray imaging that uses a low dose of x-ray to examine the tissue that forms the breast.  Women ages 40-49 are recommended to get a mammogram every one to two years; doing so may reduce the risk of breast cancer by 17 percent.  Women ages 50 to 74 can reduce the risk of breast cancer by 30 percent if they receive mammograms every one to two years as well.  Mammograms are effective because they discover breast cancer in its earliest stages, even years before a woman can feel a mass in her breast.

Some women need to have a yearly mammogram earlier than age 40.  These are women with either a sister or a mother with breast cancer.  This family history of breast cancer places a woman at significantly higher risk of developing breast cancer at an early age.  A yearly breast exam and careful breast examination by a physician is absolutely necessary in these women, usually starting at age 30 to 40.

While mammograms assist with early detection, a woman can reduce her risk of breast cancer through several lifestyle habits.  A low-fat, healthy diet and exercising four hours a week or more can decrease a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime.  Obesity has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, so maintaining a healthy weight can also decrease a woman’s risk.  One or two drinks a day can increase a woman’s susceptibility to breast cancer, and the risk increases with the more drinks a woman has.

Regular mammograms, along with positive lifestyle habits can help prevent breast cancer.  If you are 40 or older and haven’t had a mammogram this year, schedule one through your primary care physician as soon as possible.  If you have any questions about mammograms or breast cancer; information about breast cancer can be found on our website, www.MariaPalafoxMD.com or at the Amercian Cancer Society,  www.cancer.org, or schedule an appointment with us–we will walk with you on your path to better health!

Dr. Maria A. Palafox is a general surgeon and active member of the medical staff in the Methodist and Baptist Health Systems.  Her office is located in San Antonio at 8235 S. New Braunfels, Suite 201, in the Brooks City Base, near the UIW Medical School Campus.  Please call 210-504-5053 to schedule an appointment.

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