Detecting breast cancer in its earliest forms,
before it has a chance to spread, assures nearly a 100% survival
rate to women with the disease. Because early detection means
there is an excellent likelihood of successful treatment,
women should faithfully use a three-pronged approach in taking
charge of their own breast health.
The first is the monthly self-examination (called a BSE)
of the breasts, performed 3 to 5 days after a menstrual period
(starting at 20) or, if the woman is in menopause, performed
on the same day each month. Secondly, an exam should be done
by a doctor every three years until the age of 40 and then
every year thereafter. The third is a screening mammogram
program which, in general, should be started when a woman
reaches 40 years of age and performed annually, according
to the American Cancer Society.
Informing the woman’s doctor of a history of breast
cancer in close relatives, like a mother or sister, is important
also. There is a recommendation that these patients start
their screening mammograms at an earlier age, several years
before the cancer was detected in their relative. Breast ultrasound,
MRI or possibly a PET scan may also be advised for detecting
breast cancer in these higher risk women. The frequency of
imaging techniques should be discussed with the woman’s
A woman’s genetic tendency for breast cancer can now
be found out through genetic testing. However, it should be
pointed out that, although this is available, there may be
some negative sides to this testing. It is very expensive;
and should the woman be found to have this genetic inclination,
her ability to have health and life insurance may be affected.
This method of detecting breast cancer may not be worth losing
either type of insurance.
The most common gene abnormalities tested are the BRCA-1
and BRCA-2 genes which reduce abnormal cell growth. Because
of the large amount of research into these areas, there are
now several other genes which can be studied also: the CHEK-2
gene; ATM gene, accounting for repair of damaged DNA; and
the p53 gene.
Because breast cancer is the second most frequent cancer
to cause death in women (following lung cancer), knowledge
of the best methods for detecting breast cancer should be
of high priority to women. For the record, new methods of
early detection and prevention are continually being studied.
Janet Brown is a medical writer
and graduate of Loyola University New Orleans. Her personal
experiences with breast cancer have drawn her to her current
work developing breast cancer patient education and awareness
materials. She currently lives in Georgia.