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Three Steps to Early Detection of Breast Cancer
Maria C. Boria, M.D.
The lives of many families are or will be touched by breast cancer. Statisticians tell us one out of every eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. This is alarming information, particularly for Marylanders; Maryland has the highest overall cancer mortality rate in the nation.
Being aware of these facts should not, however, make us feel depressed. For many women today, breast cancer is a curable disease thanks to new developments in diagnosis and treatment undertaken at medical centers all over the nation.
The effectiveness of these advances, however, depends on early detection. This is the key to survival. There are three important steps leading to early detection:
Breast self-examination All women should examine their breasts for lumps, starting in their twenties, once a month, preferably when their menstrual flow is over. It is simple, easy, and inexpensive. By learning how their breasts feel normally, they will become skillful in identifying any changes should a lump become noticeable in the years ahead. In about 15% of women, breast cancer is found only on the basis of a physical exam and would not have been detected by a mammogram. Any breast lump requires further evaluation, no matter what a mammogram shows. It may be encouraging to know that 80% of breast lumps are not cancerous.
Regular breast examinations by a health care provider - This should be part of all regular health check-ups, preferably every year after the age of forty. It is important to know that every woman is at risk for breast cancer, regardless of her age, current health or family history. But 75% of women who are diagnosed with the disease have none of the commonly known risk factors. That is why all women should be aware of this possibility and should know that the older they get, the greater the chances of developing the disease.
Mammography This x-ray of the breast, which delivers very little radiation and has helped to save many lives, is the single most powerful tool to detect early cancerous changes in the breast, as early as two years before a lump can be felt. The earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the greater the survival rate. It has been shown that routine mammograms detect 40% of cancers not found by physical examination.
The experts agree that all women age 50 and older should have an annual mammogram. Between the ages of 40 and 49 the opinions vary, but in general it seems advisable to have it done every one or two years. In my practice, I recommend the first mammogram around the age of 35; it gives a good baseline which is useful to compare later findings should any suspicion arise in future mammograms.
The thought of cancer, in any form, is very depressing. But knowing the facts should encourage any woman to take the necessary steps to win the battle against this deadly enemy and survive.
Maria C. Boria, M.D. is Board-certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; and a member of the American Public Health Association. Her gynecology practice is located in the Medical Services Building at Kent & Queen Annes Hospital.