Be your own breast friend

While October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, be sure you’re taking steps every month to protect your breasts. 

A year ago, you probably thought you had a good understanding of the screenings you needed for your breast health. At age 40, you’d start having annual mammograms, and that was that.

But then suddenly, the recommendations changed. And on top of that, the national organizations responsible for creating breast health screening guidelines don’t agree with each other. How are you supposed to make sense of that?

Read on for a look at breast health — and what you can do to best protect yours.

Breasts change

Like most parts of your body, your breasts don’t stay the same as you age. For better or worse, they change.

Hormones are one cause for the changes, and changes are especially common during puberty, pregnancy and perimenopause. Two changes you’ll probably see: Skin on the breasts will lose elasticity and your breast tissue will lose volume.

While your breasts will change in shape and size, there are a few changes you should keep an eye on, including:

  • Dry, cracked, thickened or red skin around the nipple
  • Itchiness in the breast area
  • Lumps you’ve never felt before
  • Nipple leakage
  • Swelling around the breast, armpit or collarbone
  • Warmth radiating from the breasts

These symptoms can all be caused by something other than breast cancer, but check with your doctor if you experience them.

On the other hand, having breasts that are two different sizes, one breast that hangs lower than the other, hair around your nipples, or tender breasts during your period are all normal and may not be cause for alarm.

Making sense of screening guidelines

So what screenings do you need, and when do you need them? Let’s take a look at the recommendations for women at average risk.

First, you should know that breast self-exams, also known as BSEs, are no longer recommended. Instead of BSEs, it’s  recommended that all women familiarize themselves with their breasts. By doing so, you’re more likely to notice when breast changes occur.

When it comes to clinical breast exams, recommendations differ. For many years, national organizations recommended a clinical breast exam as part of your annual well-woman checkup. The American Cancer Society and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) no longer recommend them. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network, however, recommends women have a clinical breast exam at least every three years between ages 25 and 39, with annual exams beginning at age 40.

Recommendations for mammograms differ the most from organization to organization. Here’s a look at those guidelines:

  • The American Cancer Society has a staggered approach. Women ages 40 to 44 should talk with their doctor about whether an annual mammogram would be beneficial. Beginning at age 45 and continuing through age 54, women should have an annual mammogram. At age 55 and continuing as long as they’re in good health, women can begin having mammograms every two years, or continue annually if desired.
  • The National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends beginning annual mammograms at age 40 and continuing as long as you’re in good health.
  • The USPSTF recommends women between ages 40 and 49 talk with their doctor about whether an annual mammogram would be beneficial. Beginning at age 50 and continuing until age 74, women should have a mammogram every two years.

The short story? Talk with your doctor about what types of breast screening are right for you — and at what age. He or she will be able to provide the best advice based on your family and personal history and lifestyle habits.

If you have a family history of breast cancer or are otherwise at high risk, your doctor may recommend more frequent screenings or additional screenings, such as breast MRI.

Annual diagnostic mammograms are covered free of cost as a preventive health service under most insurance plans.

Other breast-healthy habits

You can take steps to prevent breast cancer by maintaining healthy lifestyle habits. Don’t smoke — or if you do, quit. Limit your alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day. Maintain a healthy weight by exercising for at least two and a half hours each week and eating a balanced diet full of fruits and veggies.

Is it time to celebrate you? With four convenient locations offering mammography services, Erlanger Health System encourages you to celebrate your Mammoversary! Schedule your appointment by calling (423) 778-MAMO (6266).