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Breast cancer awareness

It’s amazing what health concerns we detect when taking a shower. Patients come see me all the time who have found a lump or a bump while taking a shower. Although you aren’t intentionally examining yourself; while washing in the shower you run your hands, a wash cloth or a bar of soap over every surface of your body. When you get out of the shower, you stand in front of a mirror and rub a towel over your body again. Somewhere in there, if you are paying attention, it can become obvious that something is different than it was the last time you took a shower.

It’s October and breast cancer awareness month. When we talk about breast health, mostly we talk about breast cancer and for many, it can do real damage if you ignore the signs and symptoms, and don’t get help early. Learning more about breast cancer will help remind you to pay attention to your body and encourage you to do breast self-exams.

What do I mean by a breast self-exam? I hear often that patients are sure what to look for when doing their own self-exam. Basically, learn what your breasts feel like and then when an abnormality shows up it can be pretty obvious that there is something different: something that doesn’t belong or wasn’t there the last time. When you are doing your own exam you aren’t looking for anything in particular, you are looking for anything that is different. It’s like going for a walk in the beautiful north woods: the more you walk down a particular trail, the more you will recognize what belongs there and what doesn’t.

Most women have some areas of their breasts that are firmer than others, especially before menopause. And, breasts can feel different depending on what day in the menstrual cycle the exam is done. Breasts also feel different during pregnancy, breast feeding and after weaning your baby. The point is, your breasts will occasionally feel different, but you will begin to recognize the cyclic differences and that will make it easier to find anything that feels out of place. 

If you find something that is different, call your primary care provider right away. If an office breast exam is uncomfortable to you, try taking Tylenol or Aleve a couple of hours before your appointment. Your provider has tools to help diagnose any abnormality they might find in your breast: ultrasound, mammograms and MRI are all studies that can be used. Mammograms are so useful that they are recommended as a regular screening tool to help find breast cancers so small that no one can feel them deep in the breast. Your provider can help you decide when to start getting mammograms and how often to get them.

Find out what your risk of developing breast cancer is. Ask your provider about genetic testing, limit alcohol intake, don’t smoke, control your weight, breast feed, limit your dose and duration of hormone therapy, avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation and environmental pollution.

You know your body better than anyone. If you notice something, yes, it’s scary, but the sooner you get it checked out, the sooner you’ll know what’s going on.

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