Early Detection Is The Key to Surviving Breast Cancer

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the goal of which is to make sure women and the people that love them focus on early detection of the disease — a life-saving measure that still doesn’t happen frequently enough, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

“While most people are aware of breast cancer, many forget to take the steps to have a plan to detect the disease in its early stages and encourage others to do the same,” the group said on their website.

And while most are aware that self-exams and mammograms are the first line of early detection, there have been conflicting recommendations from various sources about when and how often to have mammograms. Robin Skrine, an oncologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, said she tells women to take a path that will lead to the earliest detection.

“I tell women what I still believe,” Skrine said. “The American College of Radiology and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists still recommend the standard yearly mammogram after 40.

Skrine added that women with a higher risk of developing breast cancer would require more frequent screenings.

Those higher risks can include a family history of breast, ovarian or prostate cancer; genetic mutations; breast density and age.

BRCA genes are probably the most talked about genes linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, especially after actress Angelina Joie brought awareness to the risks posed by being a carrier of those genes, which can be passed from parent to child.

“In December 2013, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended that women who have family members with breast, ovarian, fallopian tube, or peritoneal cancer be evaluated to see if they have a family history that is associated with an increased risk of a harmful mutation in one of these genes,” the National Cancer Institute (NCI) explained. Talking to your doctor about these potential risk factors can determine if you or other family members need to consider genetic testing.

Skrine said many women who find themselves with these genetic mutations opt for prophylactic mastectomies.

“A woman with the BRCA gene has an 80 percent risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime,” Skrine said. “It’s not really an elective procedure at that point. There are medications you can take, more frequent screenings, but 80 percent is not something you really want to play around with.”

But the NCI says these genetic mutations are actually fairly rare. For most women, regular self-exams, a baseline mammogram between 35 and 40 years old and yearly mammograms after 40 are the best means of early detection.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, less than 67 percent of women said they had received a mammogram in the last two years. Skrine said one of the most common reasons given for putting off a mammogram is that it’s painful.

“My response to that is, ‘Do you have kids?’” she said. “Most say, ‘Yes,’ and I say, ‘Well, if they say their shots hurt, do you not take them for them?’”

Skrine said that a mammogram isn’t that painful and is usually done quickly.

“Most places are very efficient and it takes less than 45 minutes,” she said. “In fact, that’s actually a little long for your typical mammogram. It’s less time than you usually spend to go see your doctor, or even go get your nails done.”

And if cost is a concern, Skrine said there are many organizations that help with free or low-cost mammography. “You just have to call and ask,” she said.

The underlying reason that women often put off a mammogram is more psychological, though. Many women are afraid to find out the results.

“And nine times out of 10, [the mammogram] is normal,” Skrine said. “But really, if there is something there, don’t you want to know sooner? Why be an ostrich and stick your head in the sand? Early detection is absolutely the key to survival.”

The bottom line is that a mammogram and routine self-exams can save lives.

“We as women have to make ourselves a priority,” Skrine said. “If you don’t take care of Mama, Mama won’t be around to take care of anyone.”

To find out if you are at risk for breast cancer or to schedule a mammogram, visit TexasHealth.org/Breast-Care.

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