As October ends with the traditional donning of costumes, we are taking the mask off breast cancer to reveal it for what it is — a treatable, sometimes avoidable disease where lifesaving medical advancements have dramatically increased the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Reduce your risk
Dr. Ann-Marie N. Hugh, FACS, medical director for the Meritus Center for Breast Health, helps hundreds of women each year manage, treat and recover from breast cancer.
To decrease your risk for breast cancer, Hugh recommends women adopt healthy lifestyles and avoid certain activities that are proven to cause cancer. These would include smoking and drinking more than one alcoholic beverage per day.
“Men should embrace these preventative actions as well, since they can get breast cancer too, although the risk is much smaller,” says Hugh.
It is important for women to maintain a healthy weight, particularly after menopause, she explains. The majority of women with breast cancer are age 50 and older.
Breast cancer is highly influenced by estrogen levels, especially long periods of uninterrupted exposure seen in patients who experience menstruation for the first time at a young age and those having a late menopause. Not having children increases risk. Similarly, not breastfeeding increases risk, since pregnant and lactating women have a long stretch of time when their menstrual cycle is interrupted.
Studies have shown that for every 12 months of breastfeeding — either with one child or spread over multiple children — the risk of breast cancer decreases when compared to women who did not breastfeed at all.
Menopause and risk
To relieve common menopause symptoms such as hot flashes, bone density loss and vaginal dryness, some women look to hormonal replacement therapy. Hugh suggests patients avoid hormonal replacement therapy whenever possible or use the lowest dose for a short period of time.
“Hormonal replacement therapy, especially estrogen and progesterone combination treatments, increases your chances of breast cancer,” she says.
Regular self-checks are key.
Between wellness visits and mammograms, women should self-check their breasts often to make sure all is well.
There are two positions to self-check — standing up while facing a mirror and laying down on your back.
When standing, look in the mirror and evaluate your breasts for any skin rashes, irregular bulges or dimples and/or inverted nipples.
When you lay down to self-check, rest on your back and use light and firm pressure to feel for lumps or unusual changes within your breast tissue.
“Breast cancer usually presents as painless unless it’s advanced, so it’s very important for patients to perform self-exams,” says Hugh.
If you feel something in your breast, have it checked right away. Delaying diagnosis and if necessary, treatment, could allow the cancer to spread and become more advanced, says Hugh.
Stages of breast cancer
There are five stages of breast cancer, ranging from non-invasive that has not spread, to small masses either outside or in the lymph nodes, to larger size cancer masses that have spread to other parts of the body.
Mortality from breast cancer is decreasing because physicians have better treatment options to offer than in the past.
Hugh encourages patients not to compare their own diagnosis and treatment plan to the experiences of others.
“We are better able to manage side effects now from surgery, chemotherapy and radiation and the chances of recovery are greater now than ever before!” she says.
Meritus Health, at 11116 Medical Campus Road, east of Hagerstown, is the largest health system in the area, providing hospital and outpatient services to the community. For more information about programs and services, go to MeritusHealth.com.