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When it comes to breast cancer detection be your own best advocate

Early detection leads to less aggressive treatments and a much higher rate of survival. Photo: Pexels

(Tina Dawn/ VM Med) — First, the bad news. It is estimated that 28,600 Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, representing 25 percent of all new cancer cases in women. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Canadian women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers) and the second leading cause of death from cancer in Canadian women.

There’s good news, however. The breast cancer death rate peaked in 1986 in Canada and has been declining ever since. That’s in large part due to better screening procedures and the prevalence of mammograms to detect breast cancer. With more awareness and better access to detection tools women have better odds of beating the disease.

Early detection is key

Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is much easier to treat. Early detection leads to less aggressive treatments and a much higher rate of survival. Depending on your age and your family risk factors, it’s important to talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you, and when you should have them.

Certain factors or family history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or other hereditary breast and ovarian syndrome-associated cancer can make you more of a likely candidate for breast cancer. Other risk factors are early menarche or late menopause, increasing age, higher body mass index, alcohol consumption, smoking, or dense breasts on a mammography. Certain ethnic groups have a higher incidence of the BRCA mutation.

It’s also important that women recognize that not having prior family history with breast cancer does not automatically protect them, therefore leading them to a false sense of security. Don’t assume that because it “doesn’t run in your family,” that you’re not a likely candidate for breast cancer. Statistics show that more than 75 percent of women who have breast cancer have no family history of the disease.

Make breast cancer screening a routine part of your healthcare

Canadian guidelines recommend that women who are 50 to 74 years old and are at average risk for breast cancer get a mammogram every two years. Women who are 40 to 49 years old should talk to their doctor about when to start getting mammograms and how often to get one.

Mammograms are an essential tool in the fight against breast cancer and having regular mammograms has shown to lower the risk of dying from breast cancer. A breast MRI is often also used along with mammograms to screen women who are at high risk for getting breast cancer.

Become familiar with your breasts

Taking control of your own health also means becoming familiar with your own body and learning to detect early when something doesn’t feel right. Being familiar with how your breasts look and feel can help you notice early symptoms such as lumps, pain, or changes in size that may be of concern.

These could include changes found during a breast self-exam. A new lump in the breast or underarm (armpit), thickening or swelling of part of the breast, irritation or dimpling of breast skin, redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast, are all signs that you should not ignore and should immediately report to your doctor or health care provider.

Be proactive about your health

The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that you talk to your healthcare provider if you notice any changes, and about the benefits and limitations of having a mammogram to screen for breast cancer. You can then decide what’s right for you based on your age, risk factors, values and preferences.

Breast self-examination, breast self-awareness, breast examination by your doctor or clinical healthcare provider, and mammography or a breast MRI are all used alone or in combination to screen for breast cancer.

At the end of the day, paying attention to your own body and being aware of your risk factors (both genetic and environmental) ensures you have better odds of both detecting breast cancer early and beating the disease. Being your own best advocate ultimately means taking your breast healthcare in your own hands.