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You don’t have to be a woman, it doesn’t have to be a lump, and you don’t have to have a family history: Dispelling myths about breast cancer

Community news | Friday, October 9, 2020

Contact: Jim Cannon

October is breast cancer awareness month, a time when we try to bring attention to the facts about breast cancer. It is also a time to try to dispel myths and inaccurate thoughts / beliefs about breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the number one non-cutaneous malignancy in women in the United States. It is also the leading cause of cancer death in women worldwide. In the United States, it is the second most common cause of cancer death in women. It is estimated that in the U.S. every two minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, there are 3 million women living in the United States with breast cancer today.

Breast cancer is not just for women. Each year, 2,670 men in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer and it causes the death of 500 men annually. Therefore, men should be monitored also.

You can still get breast cancer even without a family history of cancer. I see this commonly. There are many new cases of breast cancer in men and women who had absolutely no family history of malignancy.

Many people think that the first sign of breast cancer is a lump. This is not true. The signs and symptoms of breast cancer are many. In fact, many breast cancers are found on mammograms without a palpable breast abnormality. This explains why frequent mammograms are recommended – to try to find cancer early. An estimated 62% of all breast cancer cases in the US are discovered and diagnosed early, before it has spread to other parts of the body.

There are many other signs and symptoms of breast cancer that you can actively look for. It doesn’t have to be a lump and it often isn’t painful. A few examples are:

  • A palpable nodule/ mass / lump in breast, arm pit or even near shoulder or upper arm
  • Breast or armpit pain
  • Nipple discharge
  • Swelling of the breast, armpit or near the collarbone
  • Redness or rash of the breast or nipple
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin of the breast
  • A retracted nipple (pulled in or change in position)
  • Thickened skin of the breast
  • Change in shape or size of a breast

If you, a man or woman, notice one or more of the above findings, please see your provider for further evaluation.

If you have a lump or change in the breast as above, cancer is not always ruled out with mammogram and ultrasound. Even if a mammogram and ultrasound are negative, a biopsy is often needed to rule out cancer. I have seen many patients who felt an abnormality, scheduled their mammogram and when the mammogram showed no suspicious finding, they assumed that there was no malignancy. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Our screening tools are not 100%.This is why it is important to have breast exams in addition to imaging. It is important to work with a provider who can direct you correctly and advise your steps in evaluation.

Recommendations for screenings are controversial, but the most accepted recommendations are for annual mammography beginning at age 40 in women with an annual breast exam by a provider, and monthly self- breast exams in men and women. If you have a family history of breast cancer / other cancers or other high risk factors, screening mammograms may be recommended earlier than age 40. Often, in high risk individuals, annual breast MRI is also recommended.

Advances in breast cancer diagnosis and treatments have been astounding -- and we hope for even more. Breast cancer mortality rates have been decreasing since the 1970s due to improved breast cancer screening and improvements in treatments. Therapy saves lives when breast cancers are treated earlier. Treatment for breast cancer can include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy or anti-hormonal therapy. A treatment plan is made based on the individual patient, their characteristics, and tumor biology. Even in the setting of metastatic disease, when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, these newly developed treatments can allow patients to significantly extend their life with an excellent quality of life.

Navigating breast health and need for examinations and mammography can be confusing and overwhelming. We are here to help. During the month of October, Powell Valley Healthcare is offering discounted mammograms and free breast exams. Free breast exams will be available by appointment October 19th, 27th and 29th from 2-4:00 pm. At the free breast exam clinic, you will receive a breast exam by a physician, instructions on how to appropriately perform a self-breast exam and an order for a mammogram, if needed. We will help you to interpret the results of the mammogram and plan further steps of evaluation. If you are interested in the free breast exam clinic, please call (307) 754-7257.

In addition, Wyoming Cancer Resource Services at 877-437-2702 can help obtain necessary cancer screenings.

By Dr. Carletta Collins
Oncologist, Hematologist