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What Exactly Do Breast Exams Look For?

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Q: As a woman I’m aware that breast cancer screening is important, but what exactly do these examinations look for and when should women be screened for breast cancer?

A: Breast cancer can be devastating for women, and their loved ones. Unfortunately, it’s also a common diagnosis as breast cancer is the most prominent cancer among woman, excluding skin cancers. The American Cancer Society estimates that 1-in-8 women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime.

Breast cancer may not be entirely preventable, but there are opportunities to increase the likelihood of early detection – which increases the chances of successful treatment and saves thousands of lives each year. A testament to the benefits of early detection can be seen in the nearly 3 million breast cancer survivors currently living in the United States.

Routine screenings are intended to identify cancer before symptoms occur, which is crucial for early detection. Three breast cancer screening techniques that are most often recommended are: self-breast examinations, clinical breast exams and mammograms. Beginning in their 20s, women are urged to perform regular self-breast exams and receive clinical breast exams from their providers. Women should be familiar with the look and feel of their breasts, so that routine self-exams can alert women to breast changes. Changes to look for include lumps, pain, nipple discharge, nipple retraction and/or skin changes. These changes do not automatically indicate cancer, but should be reported to a health care provider right away so the appropriate clinical examinations and diagnostic testing can be performed.

A mammogram, which is an x-ray of the breast, accurately and effectively screens for signs of breast disease. Studies show that routine mammograms have helped decrease the death rate from breast cancer by 30 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Screening mammograms are performed as a means of preventive care on women who generally aren’t experiencing any symptoms and have no known breast-related problems. More specifically, mammograms are used to look for calcifications, masses or cysts. If these changes are present, it’s possible they may simply be the product of aging, inflammation or a previous injury. However, they may be caused by cancer and warrant further investigation.

Because routine screening helps detect breast cancer at the earliest and most manageable stage, it is  recommended that:

·        Women in their 20s and 30s conduct regular self-exams and receive a clinical breast exam every three years.

·        Beginning at age 40, women should receive annual mammograms, as long as their health allows them to receive the exam.

Women who are at greater risk of breast cancer due to family history, genetic disposition, or other factors may need to be screened more often and should develop a screening plan with their health care provider. Please talk with your provider if you have any questions or concerns about your breast health.

Women in need of a mammogram may qualify for funding assistance. You can contact 970-395-2582 in Northern Colorado to see if you qualify.

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