October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and an opportunity for us to consider ways in which women can empower themselves when facing the possibility of this disease. A woman can make lifestyle decisions for prevention, choose to access early detection methods for diagnosis, and understand her options if diagnosed with breast cancer.
With respect to prevention, it can be as basic as diet and exercise choices. We know that diets focused on richly colored vegetables and fruits, low in saturated fats, and limited to one alcoholic drink per day can lower risk of developing breast cancer. Maintaining an ideal body weight and exercising just 30 minutes five days per week is also beneficial. If you are unsure about the use of hormone replacement therapy, meet with your primary care physician or gynecologist to discuss the pros and cons in your particular situation. For those women with a strong family history of breast cancer, ask your primary care physician about the need to see a breast surgeon or genetics counselor about more aggressive ways to manage potential higher risks.
There has been some debate in the press recently regarding the usefulness of mammograms. It is important for women to know that the American Cancer Society, American Society of Breast Surgeons, and the American College of Radiology continue to recommend that women of average risk begin screening mammography at age 40. This recommendation is based on many studies that have shown screening mammography improves survival from breast cancer, and that newer digital mammography is more effective in younger women with dense breasts than the older film mammograms, leading to earlier detection. Patients diagnosed at an earlier stage are less likely to require mastectomies and chemotherapy, and have improved survival rates. You may be advised to start screening at an earlier age if you have other risk factors, including a strong family history. In some patients, there may be additional tests available to help with early detection. If you feel a mass, you should seek an evaluation with your primary care provider regardless of your age. While there is still debate about recommending self-breast exams, I continue to advocate them for women who feel comfortable performing them. Many women in my practice found their own breast cancer with a thorough self- breast exam.
If you are facing a diagnosis of breast cancer, here are some things to remember:
- Most women have early stage disease, which is often curable.
- There are effective treatment options available for all stages of breast cancer. Discuss options for seeking care with your health care provider.
- Each woman’s treatment plan needs to be planned carefully and individualized. When looking for a surgeon, inquire if they focus their practice on treating patients with breast disease. Most surgeons who focus on the most up-to-date treatment of breast cancer also partner with medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, nurses, reconstructive surgeons, social workers, and research coordinators in a team approach to offer cohesive, compassionate and exemplary care to each and every patient.
In the end, you should feel that your team of physicians and other care providers partner with you and your loved ones to obtain the best outcomes possible.