When we talk about women’s health, we tend to focus a lot on breast cancer and the need for regular screenings. That’s because breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer in women after skin cancer. Statistics show that 1 in 8 women will develop the disease at some point in their lives.
What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer occurs when cells in breast tissue – typically in the milk ducts or glands – mutate and begin to invade surrounding tissues. Usually, these cells form malignant tumors that can be felt as a lump or seen on a mammogram. There’s also a risk that it can metastasize or spread to other areas of the body.
What is My Risk?
While the exact cause of breast cancer is still unclear, there are biological and lifestyle factors that help determine whether you’re at increased risk of developing the disease. Apart from being a woman, advancing age, especially if you’re over the age of 50 and/or an African-American woman, and family history are some of the most significant risk factors.
A woman whose first-degree relative (mother, sister or daughter) has had breast cancer has a significantly increased risk of developing the disease. Two genetic mutations in particular, BRCA1 and BRCA2, have been identified to cause some instances of breast cancer. However, it’s important to note that being genetically predisposed to developing breast cancer does not mean you will get the disease.
How is it Detected?
As with most forms of cancer, early detection is the key to better outcomes. That’s why it’s so important to regularly conduct self-examinations, have annual wellness check-ups, and mammograms as recommended.
Regardless of age, it’s recommended that women perform breast self-examinations once a month to get familiar with the shape and consistency of your breasts, so you’re more likely to detect any abnormalities. For patients who are unsure about how to spot changes in breast tissue, I tell them to literally draw a picture of a clock, check “hour by hour”, and mark any lumps or fibrous tissue they may feel. Then, when you do your self-exam next month, you have something to refer to.
A mammogram is essentially a specialized x-ray that can detect lumps within the breast before they can be felt. Even if you haven’t detected any abnormalities during self-examination or possess known risk factors, it’s recommended that women over the age of 40 receive a mammogram every 1-2 years. Those known to be at an elevated risk for developing breast cancer should consult their doctor before scheduling a mammogram.
Looking Beyond Breast Cancer
But, while it’s important to know the risks and symptoms of breast cancer, it’s just as important to understand the psychological and emotional impact that it incurs.
At the Washington Hospital Women’s Center, we’ve put a lot of resources into creating an environment that promotes healing, more importantly, peace, during a scary time in the lives of our patients. From the soothing, spa-like atmosphere to the care and support of our Nurse Navigators, we want to help treat our patients’ minds, bodies and souls, not just their cancer.
In addition to advanced diagnostic services, the Women’s Center offers massages and yoga for stress and pain management, breast health seminars and support groups, as well as bra and prosthetic fittings. If diagnosed, our Nurse Navigators work with patients, their families and their physicians to ensure they’re getting the best possible treatments, support services, and guidance through their breast cancer journeys.
Although there are more than 3 million women with a history of breast cancer living in the United States, it’s still a scary concept for many to grapple with – but it’s important to know that diagnosis isn’t necessarily a death sentence. Early detection, advanced treatments and greater awareness of the risks and dangers it poses have contributed to decreasing death rates over the past few decades. Knowing your body and receiving your recommended screenings are the first steps to finding, treating and beating this disease.
If you’d like to learn more about the Women’s Center and its Nurse Navigators, visit the Washington Hospital website. To learn about how the UCSF-Washington Hospital partnership is bringing comprehensive, specialized cancer care to the Tri-City Area, see this piece on community-based cancer care.