Breast Cancer Awareness
As a radiation oncologist, I treat many people with breast cancer. With enhanced screening, improved treatment options, and advanced technology, I am grateful to say that breast cancer is having a much smaller impact on patients today than it has in years past. For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I would like to share some important ways you can leverage all of the medical advances we’ve made to improve the likelihood that—if you do get a breast cancer diagnosis—it will be early in the disease and more treatable than at later stages.
- Know your risk. The most significant risks for developing breast cancer can’t be changed. If you are a woman and over the age of 50, you are at higher risk. Family medical history of breast or ovarian cancers, having dense breasts, and a personal history of breast cancer or non-cancerous breast disease also put women at greater risk. Reproductive history—including menstruating before age 12, starting menopause after age 55, having a first pregnancy after age 30, not breastfeeding, and never having a full-term pregnancy—increase risk as well. Some increased risk comes with lifestyle choices, including not getting enough exercise, being overweight or obese, taking hormones during menopause for more than 5 years, and drinking alcohol.
- Mitigate those risk factors you can. We doctors repeat this advice all of the time, but that is only because it is so important. Eat a healthy diet and get some exercise every day. Both these actions will help maintain a healthy weight, which is beneficial in preventing all sorts of medical issues, including breast cancer.
- If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, it’s a good idea to get more information. Learn about genetic counseling options. Genetic counseling is available conveniently in Bennington through a cooperation with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health. Through genetic counseling, you can determine if it would be worthwhile to have the genetic tests necessary to determine whether you have a genetic mutation that makes you more likely to get breast or ovarian cancer. This information can be very useful in determining preventive steps.
- Get your annual screening mammogram. This is the most powerful tool we have for detecting breast cancer early. People who get their mammograms as recommended are more likely to have cancer treatments that are easier to manage and more successful. While it is certainly scary at first, many are able to look back on their cancer experience fully recovered and completely healthy.
- Know the symptoms. If you discover a lump in your breast or armpit, thickening or swelling in part of your breast, irritation or dimpling of breast skin or nipple, redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or breast, discharge or blood coming from the nipple, pain in any part of the breast or nipple, or any change in the size or shape of the breast, call your doctor right away.
While we can’t completely wipe out any chance of getting breast cancer, we can take all of the small important steps necessary to limit the impact of breast cancer on our lives.
Dr. Matthew Vernon is a radiation oncologist at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center in Bennington.