"You have breast cancer" are the words that an estimated 184,000 women will hear this year, predicts the American Cancer Society. The diagnosis of breast cancer is an unexpected and unplanned event in any woman's life. The emotions become overwhelming as the paralyzing fear grips each woman.

Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women in the United States today other than skin cancer. Breast cancer is also the leading cause of cancer deaths in women ages 40 to 59, with approximately 41,000 deaths occurring this year. A woman in the United States has a one in eight lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, reports the American Cancer Society.

There are no proven methods of preventing breast cancer. Being aware of your risk factors, along with early screening and detection, offers the best opportunity for reducing the breast cancer death rate. You hold the key to early detection of breast cancer through mammography, clinical breast examination and monthly breast self-examination.

A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. The breasts are compressed between two mammography paddles and pictures are taken from two angles on each breast. Mammograms make it possible to see developing tumors long before they can be felt by you or even by a skilled health care professional. When breast cancer is found at its earliest stage, it can be treated most effectively and with the fewest possible side effects.

Although mammography is the most sensitive screening method, a small percentage of breast cancers do not show up on mammograms but can be felt by a woman or her health care provider. For this reason, clinical breast examinations (CBE) and breast self-examination (BSE) are so important in complementing the mammogram. The American Cancer Society recommends that a clinical breast examination should be done every three years for women ages 20-39, then every year starting at age 40. The CBE should be done by a trained health care professional. Women should perform monthly BSE beginning at age 20. During the CBE is a good time to learn how to do a BSE. Ask your doctor or nurse to teach you and watch your technique. By regularly examining your own breasts, you are more likely to notice any changes that occur. Changes that should be reported to your doctor are:

A lump or thickening

Skin changes: rash, redness, swelling

Skin dimpling

An orange peel appearance of the skin

Changes in size or shape

Inverted nipple in a previously normal breast

Nipple discharge

Enlarged lymph nodes in the underarm area

Anything that increases a woman's chance of getting breast cancer is called a risk factor. But having a risk factor, or even several, does not necessarily mean that a person will get the disease. About 80 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no risk factors. Being a woman and getting older seem to be the two greatest risk factors. Some risk factors cannot be changed. These include gender, age, race, previous breast biopsy, previous breast irradiation, early menarche (before 12), late menopause (after 55), genetic risk factors, and family history or personal history of breast cancer. Other risk factors related to one's lifestyle include not having children or having them after age 30, alcohol consumption, smoking, obesity and high-fat diets, lack of physical activity and environmental risk factors.

Breast cancer cannot be prevented, but the earlier it is found, the better the chances for successful treatment. Your breast health is your responsibility. Make sure that you see your health care professional for a clinical breast examination, perform monthly breast self-examination and schedule a mammogram.

The Breast Care Center at the North Mississippi Medical Center's Women's Hospital is a great place to have a mammogram. October marks the one year anniversary of the Breast Care Center. The center has successfully provided easy access to mammographic services in a comfortable environment designed especially for women. This user friendly environment and rapid reporting of mammographic results has significantly reduced the patient's anxiety. Any woman 35 years or older, who has seen a health care provider for a clinical breast examination within the last year, may individually schedule an appointment to have a mammogram by simply calling toll free (800) THE DESK (843-3375).

Sondra Clayton, RN, BSN, is a Breast Health Specialist with the Breast Care Center at the North Mississippi Medical Center Women's Hospital.

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