According to research by Susan G. Komen, the median age of diagnosis of breast cancer for women in the U.S. is 62 years old. This is why many young women don’t think of this disease as something that they have to worry about until they are older.
However, there are numerous conversations you can start with your gynecologist now about how to catch breast cancer early including:
How to do self-exams and what abnormalities to look-out for
Nearly 80% of young women diagnosed with breast cancer find their breast abnormality themselves. Common knowledge tells women that breast cancer comes in the form of lumps. However, other ways in which changes to the breast can result in cancer include:
- Nipple discharge
- Dimpling (or dents)
- Breast or nipple pain
- Nipple retraction or inversion
- Changes to the texture
- Lymph node changes
It’s rare but breast cancer can also be detected through breast calcifications which are small calcium deposits that develop in a woman’s breast tissue. If microcalcifications appear in certain patterns and are clustered together, they may be a sign of precancerous cells or early breast cancer.
Ask your gynecologist if they have information on self-exams and helpful ways to remind yourself to do them regularly. One great way to get to know your breasts and notice changes is to used your hands to wash them in the shower rather than a washcloth or luffa!
When you should have your first breast cancer screening
Typically, women are recommended to get their first mammogram starting at forty years old. If you have a history of breast cancer in your family then it is recommended to have your first mammogram ten years before the age of their diagnosis. For example, if your mother was diagnosed at forty-seven years old then you would start yearly imaging at thirty-seven years old.
The medical community goes off of odds so outliers like women who are much younger tend to have to really advocate for themselves. Remember, cancer does not know when it’s your birthday. If you would like to get a mammogram sooner than the recommended date, then request a script from your gynecologist as you cannot get one without it.
The type of imaging you need
2D mammograms are the most common form of breast cancer screenings, however with advancements in technology 3D imaging is available for many – find a facility. A number of studies have found that 3D mammograms find more cancers, especially smaller and node-negative, than traditional 2D mammograms and also reduce the number of false positives.
Insurance may cover the upcharge of using 3D screenings. (Governor Tom Wolf made Pennsylvania the first state in the nation to require insurance coverage of 3D screening mammograms for women insured under PA law.) You can also get involved with breast cancer legislation.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that the younger a woman is the denser her breast tissue, which makes it harder to see cancer on a mammogram. Due to this, many doctors will recommend they have a follow-up MRI to ensure they are all clear. Talk to your gynecologist about if you can use 3D technology and if you need an MRI or not.
Getting genetic testing and counseling
Genetic counselors work as members of a healthcare team, providing risk assessment, education and support to individuals and families at risk for, or diagnosed with, a variety of inherited conditions. They can assist with getting genetic testing done to see if you or your family has a breast cancer gene – currently there are 11 genes that can be detected through bloodwork.
While covered by insurance if you have already been diagnosed with breast cancer, you can still pay out of pocket for your own piece of mind. The cost of testing ranges from approximately $300 to $5,000, depending on whether you are being tested for only a specific area(s) of a gene known to be abnormal or if hundreds of areas are being examined within multiple genes, including other cancers.
More than 75% of women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease. While a high cost, the benefits of knowing your risks could be lifesaving. Speak to your gynecologist, and health insurance carrier, about what testing you should have done.
While only 4% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. are under 40, most of them detect it early themselves. Early detection leads to a greater range of treatment options, including less-extensive surgery (e.g., breastconserving surgery like lumpectomy versus mastectomy) and the use of chemotherapy with fewer serious side effects, or sometimes, the option to forgo chemotherapy.
That’s why it’s imperative to start these conversations early. Should you ever get breast cancer these steps can potentially save your life.
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