Breast cancer is a frightening diagnosis. Statistics estimate that in 2015, about 231,840 women will be diagnosed with some form of breast cancer. However, just because you find a lump in your breast does not mean you have cancer, and a breast cancer diagnosis isn’t a death sentence. Breast cancer rates actually decreased starting in 2000, and awareness has been a big part of that change. With the right knowledge, you can protect yourself from cancer and help your doctors detect any issues early.
About 80% of breast lumps are benign. Some are simply clusters of fatty tissue or can be caused by injury or infection. If you’ve had recent trauma to your breast, you may feel a lump for several days or weeks afterward. If you’re breastfeeding, you can get clogged milk ducts or mastitis, both of which can cause lumps. Body piercings around the nipple can also cause infections, as can an abscess or cellulitis. Remember that a breast cancer lump is usually hard and not pliable. If the lump is soft and movable, it’s likely benign.
One of the biggest ways to prevent breast cancer is through a monthly self-exam. If you’ve never done a self-exam, ask your doctor. He or she will walk you through performing your first one.
Some breast cancers are hereditary, so tell your doctor if your mother, grandmothers, or sisters had breast cancer or are susceptible to breast infections. Your doctor can use this information to teach you how to avoid common infections and better protect your breasts. You should also avoid exposing your breasts to high amounts of sunlight or the radiation in tanning beds, as this increases your cancer risk. Smoking also increases your risk for breast cancer, so your doctor may advise you to quit if you smoke.
Two out of three invasive breast cancers are found in women 55 or older. If you’re approaching this age bracket or are already 55, get regular mammograms. They’ll make it easy for your doctor to catch suspicious cells or cancer sooner, increasing your chance of survival.
Don’t panic. Thanks to modern medicine, the survival rate for breast cancer is continually increasing. Never schedule an appointment with a surgeon or oncologist on your own; speak to your primary care doctor first. You’ll undergo a breast MRI to determine the extent of the disease. Once you have a diagnosis, get all the information you can (including treatment options) so you and your medical team can determine the best ones for you.