5 Facts About Breast Cancer Early Detection and Prevention (and How to Screen Yourself)

From pink ribbons to stories from survivors, there’s no ignoring the fact that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It has become a staple of the fall calendar and one of the most successful awareness campaigns in history. Of course, with breast cancer affecting about 264,000 new women each year and claiming the lives of 42,000 women annually in the U.S. alone, there is still much to do. Globally, breast cancer remains the fifth-leading cause of death in women. Research continues to show that early detection is key to saving lives. Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer in its localized, early stages and begin treatment promptly have survival rates as high as 99 percent. This means knowing key facts about breast cancer detection and prevention can be lifesaving. To celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let’s look at five facts about early detection and prevention. We’ll also cover how you can perform a breast self-exam at home.

Fact: Early Detection Saves Lives

In years past, a breast cancer diagnosis was far more grim. While it is still life-changing today, thanks to years of research and fundraising, survival rates are at an all-time high. However, those positive figures become lower when cancer has already spread throughout the body at the time it is detected. Women with breast cancer that has spread to their lymph nodes or beyond have a lower survival rate. As such, identifying breast cancer early on is the number one way to save lives.

Fact: Women with the BRCA Gene Mutation Have a Greater Risk of Breast Cancer

Though anyone can get breast cancer, genetic testing can help identify women who are at higher risk. This is done by looking for abnormalities in the BRCA gene with a blood test. If mutations occur in either the BRCA1 or BRCA1 gene, there is a higher likelihood of breast cancer occurring. Experts currently recommend that women with a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer get tested. It’s worth noting that genetic testing doesn’t tell the whole story. Women with a mutation in the BRCA gene won’t necessarily develop cancer. However, a positive test can help women seek more frequent screenings and preventative care. If they do develop breast cancer, there is a better chance of catching it early on.

Fact: Mammogram Screening Guidelines Vary with Age

Getting a routine mammogram is a great way to identify breast cancer in its early stages—even if you aren’t having symptoms. The American Cancer Society has established guidelines for who should be getting a routine mammogram.

The guidelines suggest:

  • Women ages 40-44 can start getting screened
  • Women ages 45-54 should have an annual mammogram
  • Women ages 55 and older should have a mammogram either annually or every other year

Those with an increased risk of breast cancer, such as those with a family history or a BRCA gene mutation, should follow the advice of their doctor to determine when screening is necessary.

Fact: Early Signs of Breast Cancer Are Subtle

We know that identifying breast cancer early is crucial. However, it can be difficult to do so as most women with early-stage breast cancer experience few or no symptoms.

Knowing the warning signs and monitoring them closely makes it more likely that you’ll catch breast cancer early on.

Symptoms to look for include:

  • New lump in the breast or armpit
  • Redness of the nipple or breast
  • Dimpling of the breast skin
  • Pulling or puckering of the skin of the breast or nipple
  • Pain in the breast
  • Unexplained changes to the size or shape of the breast

These symptoms don’t automatically mean a breast cancer diagnosis. Many can be caused by other conditions. But if you or a loved one notice anything out of the ordinary, you should visit the doctor right away.

Fact: There Are Ways to Lower Your Risk of Breast Cancer

As mentioned, anyone can get breast cancer. Some risk factors, like family history, BRCA gene mutation, and age are out of your control.

Other risks, however, can be mitigated.

According to the CDC, steps to lower your risk of breast cancer include living a healthy lifestyle and understanding the risks of hormonal birth control.

To lower your risk, try:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Avoiding excess sugar intake
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Discussing the risks of hormonal birth control methods with your doctor
  • Breastfeeding your children (if applicable)

How to Perform a Breast Self-Exam

Doing a breast self-exam only takes a few minutes and can mean the difference between life and death. It is the easiest way to identify breast cancer and doesn’t require leaving your home or talking to a doctor. Most experts recommend doing a breast self-exam at least once a month. This helps you get familiar with your normal breasts, which makes it easier to notice changes. It is recommended that you perform the exam shortly after ending your period if you menstruate. This is the time when your breasts are least swollen, making it easier to feel abnormalities. You can do a breast self-exam standing up or lying down on your back. You can choose whichever is more comfortable. It is also helpful to have a mirror so you can visually inspect your breasts.

To perform a breast self-exam, take the following steps:

  • Stand in front of a mirror and look at your breasts. Look for changes in size, shape, symmetry, color, and movement as you raise your arms.
  • Use the pads of your fingers on one hand and begin to feel one breast. Start at the nipple and move outward. Imagine the 12 points of a clock and feel in the direction of each point. Come back to the nipple each time and move outward.
  • Use both light and firm pressure while feeling each breast. Feel for lumps, knots, thickened areas, and painful spots.

It may be helpful to have a doctor show you how to perform a breast self-exam during your appointment. This can boost your confidence and help you know what to look for next time you do it at home.

This video from the National Breast Cancer Foundation is also a great place to start.

Velocity Urgent Care is Here for You

Urgent care might not be your first thought if you find something abnormal during a breast self-exam or have concerns about breast cancer. Regardless of where you go, visiting a doctor as soon as possible is crucial.

If you don’t have a primary care doctor or can’t get an appointment, visiting urgent care is a good alternative. Our providers will complete a health history and perform a physical exam during your visit.

We can then refer you to a specialist in the Sentara Healthcare network for rapid follow-up care.

At Velocity Urgent Care, we offer convenient online registration that helps you limit your contact with others during your visit. You can sign up for an appointment online to skip the waiting room and arrive when it’s your turn to be seen.

Velocity Urgent Care even offers text message updates so you can wait in the car (if you prefer) until it’s time for your appointment. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are taking serious safety precautions to ensure that our locations are as clean as possible.

We’ve put strict sterilization protocols into place and are carefully handling patients who may be contagious to ensure that each one of our clinics is safe for those who need urgent medical care or occupational health services.

Velocity Urgent Care is an in-network provider for most major insurance plans, meaning you can be seen for the cost of your co-pay and deductible.

All our locations also accept Medicare, Medicaid, and Tricare. Veterans Administration beneficiaries are also welcome.

To learn more about our services, locations, hours, and more, visit www.velocityuc.com.