Breast Cancer Basics: What You Need to Know
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month — but, women should take steps to remain aware of their breast health year-round. Dr. Donna Waters, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Crescent City Physicians, shares her recommendations to help women perform breast self-checks and keep current with recommended screenings.
October 13th, 2014 by: Jennifer Hughes
It’s important for women to be familiar with the texture, appearance and shape of their breasts, as these attributes vary between women. Performing regular self-checks is pivotal; a self-check, which is a physical exam that women can perform themselves, involves pressing gently in small circles around each breast, feeling for lumps, irregularities or tenderness.
“Tenderness and lumps also depend on your age and where you are in your menstrual cycle,” Dr. Waters notes. “The best time to check is the week after your cycle.” This is when any irregularities caused by hormones will usually disappear.
She recommends performing a monthly self-check in the shower, as combining these two routines allows women to multitask. “In a woman’s hectic life, to take time to add one more thing can be overwhelming,” Dr. Waters says. “Spend a few extra minutes doing a self-check as you’re soaping up.” She distributes laminated cards to younger patients at their first appointments, detailing the proper steps of a self-check. These cards can be kept in the shower as a helpful reminder to perform regular self-checks.
As women step out of the shower, they should examine their breasts in the bathroom mirror. “You’re not looking for size disparities, but to see if there is any strange dimpling or a new shape to the breast,” Dr. Waters says.
Scheduling regular mammograms is another aspect of staying on top of breast health. Dr. Waters recommends that women with no family history of breast cancer schedule yearly mammograms beginning at the age of 40. “If patients have any family history of breast cancer, or if they have very fibrocystic breasts (lumps or bumps), my recommendation is to start at 35,” she says.
Dr. Waters notes that mammograms are not simply about scan results. “It’s not just a matter of looking at the films,” she says. Mammogram results should be placed in context with a patient’s family history, age and menstrual status, as well as factors like body weight and smoking.
Along with picking a reputable physician to perform their mammograms, women should ensure that they receive their scan results in a timely manner. “You need to get results on every single test that you ever have done,” Dr. Waters says. “The thing is to make sure everything is OK — if you don’t hear, don’t assume it was normal.”
Dr. Waters appreciates the fact that many of her patients are committed to remaining abreast of their health, and says she often has “lively discussions” with patients about best practices for breast health. “Most women in this day and age stay very well educated and on top of things,” she says.