October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and there is an abundance of information about the disease and what you should know. But being aware of breast cancer and how to detect it – whether you’re at risk for it or how to decrease your risk when possible – is your best advantage if you or a loved one faces a diagnosis one day.
According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women after skin cancer. And early detection may be the best defense for women when it comes to saving their lives.
Early detection recommendations
“Early detection has played a huge part in the decline of breast cancer mortality rates over the course of the last three decades,” says Julie Margenthaler, MD, Washington University and Siteman Cancer Center breast surgeon at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital.
While there are several options when it comes to early detection, Dr. Margenthaler says a mammogram is the best screening tool.
The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammography screening for average risk women beginning at age 40. Women at higher risk due to family history or those with a known genetic mutation, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, should consider mammography at an earlier age.
Dr. Margenthaler recommends those with a family history also consider a risk assessment, which includes questions such as first period, pregnancy history, family history, and if you’ve ever had a previous biopsy. Based on the results, some patients may undergo specialized screening or medications, and in some cases, surgery may be advised.
Patients at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital are provided with several imaging options, including 3D mammography, diagnostic mammograms, breast ultrasound and breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
“We know that 3D mammography allows the radiologist to see things more clearly at a higher detection rate, which also reduces the number of times a patient may get called back,” Dr. Margenthaler says.
“A lot of patients are concerned about the discomfort, but the reason we do compression screening of the breast is it allows us to see any abnormalities in the tissue and it is the best way for us to pick up cancer early,” she says. “It is a very minor discomfort, but if you are concerned, you should tell your mammography technician, who will be understanding.”
Although mammography can typically detect breast cancer before a self-exam or physician exam, it is still important that women be aware of certain symptoms or signs that may lead to further examination. These can include a lump or nodule; nipple discharge that is spontaneous, both clear or bloody; and nipple abnormalities such as crusting or skin abnormalities, such as a thickening or swelling.
“If you find something out of the ordinary, it should be investigated and you should talk to your doctor,” Dr. Margenthaler advises.
In addition to early detection, there are steps an average-risk woman can take to potentially reduce her risk for breast cancer. These include following a healthy lifestyle by maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly; following a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in fat; and moderating alcohol intake.
Where to go for care
If a patient requires breast cancer care, the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital provides the same expert level of care found at any Siteman Cancer Center location, Dr. Margenthaler says.
“The Siteman Cancer Center received an exceptional rating from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, which very few cancer centers receive,” she says. “You have to be at the highest level of patient care, as well as have an exceptional support staff, conduct research and offer the most advanced technology, and Siteman Cancer Center offers that at all locations.”
Patients at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital have access to all clinical trials, the latest technology, screening and surgical services found at any Siteman Cancer Center location.
“We have an entire specialized team for breast cancer care at Barnes-Jewish West County,” Dr. Margenthaler says. “Our breast group meets weekly, where patients are presented and we can discuss and reach a consensus on how to treat every patient with the best options and care possible.”