When I think about my family’s health history, I tell my husband, “Well, if I don’t have a heart attack first, cancer will surely kill me.” I joke about it, but it’s not funny. I just can’t handle the thought of not being around to watch my boys grow to become young men, so it’s easier for me to make a flippant statement rather than deal with my real fears and anxieties.
But the truth is, my family tree has cancer on nearly every branch, and that thought keeps me up at night. I have always known my family’s history of Breast Cancer increases my chances of being diagnosed with this disease. You know what I didn’t know? According to the latest numbers in an ABC News video, Breast Cancer 2015 By The Numbers, the percentage of women who are diagnosed with Breast Cancer who have NO FAMILY HISTORY of this disease is greater than 85%. And despite the thought that most Breast Cancer patients are older women, there is a shockingly large percentage of women who are young moms, mothers who are so busy with little ones they might not have time to really take care of themselves or might just assume a change in their breasts is just a result of pregnancy, birth, and the aftermath that follows.
Breast Cancer is an equal opportunity disease that knows no age, family history, or lifestyle. We must all be aware of the early signs and be willing to take care of our own bodies and health just like we take care of the bodies and health of our families.
Early Detection Can Be the Key to Saving Your Life
- No matter how much you dread it, schedule (and go to) your yearly OB exam. This has to be my least favorite way to spend a thirty minute chunk of time, but it’s necessary. There is not much that is more awkward than being in an OB’s stirups and having a Pap that is followed by the doctor massaging my breasts and checking for lumps. But that thirty minute appointment might just be the key to catching and conquering cancer.
- Self-examine your breasts every month at the same time every month. Throughout the course of your cycle, your breasts change. By examining them within the same timeframe every month, you will notice when something feels “off.” When checking your breasts, it is important to not only check for lumps, but also to check for changes in texture or discoloration, as these are also signs that something may have changed.
- While you are conducting your self-examination, inspect the Tail of Spence. Don’t know what that is? It extends from the outer area of the breast to the armpit. It’s often overlooked when people do self-exams because, well, we don’t think of our armpits as being part of our breasts. However, doctors frequently find tumors in the Tail of Spence, making it a vitally important part of your self examination process.
- As soon as you can, start getting mammograms. This might be forty years old, which is the age that many insurance companies start covering mammograms. However, if you have a family history of Breast Cancer, many insurance companies will approve and cover mammograms done at an earlier age if they receive referrals from your doctor.
- If your family history is like mine, consider getting tested for the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene mutation. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds with insurance companies often refusing to cover this blood test that somehow has a pricetag of $3000. In her Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, Angelina Jolie uses her article entitled “My Medical Choice” to tell her story. After testing positive for the BRCA 1 gene mutation, doctors estimated she had an 87% chance of this gene mutation leading to Breast Cancer and a 50% chance of it leading to Ovarian Cancer. Because of these daunting numbers, she chose to have a preventative double masectomy. While some might say that was extreme, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about doing something similar should doctors find this gene mutation in me.
What to do if you find a lump or if you have an abnormal mammogram
- If you feel a lump or notice a change in your breasts, make an appointment immediately. It could just be a non-threatening cyst; however, cancer is a mutation of cells. Can you imagine how quickly genes mutate on a cellular level? By the time you feel a lump, it is already a decent size, meaning you need to have a biopsy done right away to determine what is going on. Do not wait for your next yearly exam.
- Seek treatment right away and fight like your life depends on it because, quite frankly, it does. While it is understandable to be shaken to your core with fear, pick yourself up and do what you need to do to give yourself a fighting chance at life. Yes, cancer treatment is tough. Yes, cancer kills many. But don’t let it take you too soon. Fight for your life. Many, but not all, who fight, will win the battle. But you absolutely cannot win if you don’t put up a good fight from the beginning.
- Tell your family. This is important for two reasons. First, you will need all of the support you can get; second, if you have cancer, the other females in your family may be at a higher risk of developing it. If my mom ever becomes diagnosed with Breast Cancer, she would need to obviously tell me and my sisters, but also every niece she has, too, because when an aunt has breast cancer, the chances of the daughters of her siblings having it dramatically increases.
- Find a support system. Many people find support from their husbands, their families, or their friends. From the people I’ve watched fight through this disease, another good support system appears to be others who are going through it, too. Despite how well-intentioned family and friends are, no one will know or feel exactly what you are feeling quite like another fighter and/or survivor.
Breast Cancer happens quickly, shows no mercy, and doesn’t care about your age or profession. Once Breast Cancer has been detected, it needs to be dealt with quickly. Being diagnosed with Breast Cancer does not guarantee a death sentence, especially if it’s in an early stage. However, the time you have to seek treatment is limited, so quick action is necessary.
Look into your insurance plan to see what is covered regarding cancer screenings and preventative measures. If you don’t have insurance or have insurance that is lacking, resources are out there for you and the women in your life. The CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program provides low-income, uninsured, and under-insured women with Breast Cancer screenings and diagnostic services. Click here to find the eligibility requirements, along with a drop down menu to enter your state and find doctors’ offices near you.