Breast Cancer Awareness Month may be ending, but taking control of your breast health is a priority you should consider 365 days a year, says Sarah Storey, chief program officer at Bright Pink, an organization focused on prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women.
After all, according to statistics, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, but if detected early enough, the five-year survival rate can be more than 92 percent. In other words, you want to know everything that’s going on with your breasts.
So, where to start?
“One of the things that’s most important to be thinking about is whether you have a really good partner in your health care provider, whether you have someone who is really going to answer your questions and take your concerns seriously, no matter their age,” says Storey. “If you don’t feel like you have that person, you should shop around until you find someone who’ll work with you.” (Come on, you wouldn’t settle for a hair stylist who didn’t get you.)
Once you’ve found that doctor, though, your job isn’t over. If you haven’t noticed, MDs are super busy, and if you can show up to your appointment with a toolkit of the right questions, you’ll be better equipped to be proactive about breast cancer prevention. To help, Bright Pink’s team of physicians and experts have put together a list of the five most important questions to ask your MD. —Victoria Lewis
1. What’s my history?
Ask: What are my risk factors for breast cancer? How do they impact my projected lifetime risk for developing this cancer?
“It’s very important to make sure you’re talking to your doctor about your family’s health history,” says Storey, “but not just once. If someone in your family is diagnosed with cancer, update them. This can help them to determine if there are any red flags for your own health risks.”
2. What’s the plan?
Ask: What prevention and screening plan to you recommend for me based on my personal risk?
According to Storey, you should be clear on what age you need to start getting mammograms. “Our general recommendation is 40,” she says (although different organizations disagree on this age requirement). “But if you have a close relative who’s been diagnosed with breast cancer, you should start screening when you’re ten years younger than the age at which they were diagnosed. So if your mom found cancer at age 40, you should get mammograms starting at 30.” Young women—defined as women under 40 in this case—are often finding their own cancer before being diagnosed by a doctor, so being proactive is key.
3. What can I do to prevent it?
Ask: What lifestyle changes could I make to reduce my risk for developing breast cancer?
According to Storey, there are a few things you can do to lessen the risk of developing cancer: Maintain a healthy BMI, drink no more than one alcoholic drink per day, and engage in at least thirty minutes of purposeful physical activity on most days. Your doctor will be able to talk to you about your personal habits and identify areas that may specifically apply to you, like diet or pregnancies.
4. What kind of testing can I do?
Ask: Should I see any specialists to manage my risk, such as a genetic counselor?
If your doctor determines that your genetics or other factors make you a high risk for cancer, find out how you can gather all the information you need and ask for referrals to doctors who will do further tests. “Many physicians have been trained to think of breast cancer as a disease that shows up in women in their 50s and 60s,” Storey says. “We tell young women not to take dismissal for an answer when it comes to their breast health. If you think something is up, don’t let it go until you get a conclusive answer.”
5. What should I look for?
Ask: What breast cancer symptoms do I need to monitor my body for between doctor visits?
The single most important thing you can do is get to know your own normal, says Storey. “Know what your breasts look and feel like, so if there is a change, you’ll notice it. It could be swelling, redness, a lump, discharge from the nipples or even a change in shape or size. If it persists for a few weeks and you can determine it’s not connected to your menstrual cycle, then you should go ask your doctor. And if you don’t get the answer you need, be persistent and ask again.”
For more information, visit www.brightpink.org