Increasing breast cancer awareness

By Nicole Daughhetee
Staff Reporter

October, as most of us know, is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. Breast Cancer continues to be plague women (and men) despite increased awareness and the organization of institutions committed to finding cures.

The most up-to-date statistics estimate that in 2012, among U.S. women there will be 226,870 new cases of invasive breast cancer (includes new cases of primary breast cancer among survivors, but not recurrence of original breast cancer among survivors).

Sadly, 39,510 women and men will lose their personal battles with breast cancer.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) defines breast cancer as a group of diseases that cause cells in the body to change and grow out of control. Most types of cancer cells eventually form a lump or mass called a tumor, and are named after the part of the body where the tumor originates.

Breast cancer begins in breast tissue, which is made up of glands for milk production, called lobules, and the ducts that connect the lobules to the nipple. The remainder of the breast is made up of fatty, connective, and lymphatic tissue.

When the tumor is small and in the most treatable stages, breast cancer typically produces no symptoms. Because it is difficult to detect in those initial stages, it is incredibly important that women follow the recommended screening guidelines for detecting breast cancer at an early stage, before symptoms develop.

Once breast cancer has grown to a size that can be felt, the most common physical sign is a painless lump. Sometimes breast cancer can spread to underarm lymph nodes and cause a lump or swelling, even before the original breast tumor is large enough to be felt.

Less common signs and symptoms include breast pain or heaviness; persistent changes to the breast, such as swelling, thickening, or redness of the breast’s skin; and nipple abnormalities such as spontaneous discharge (especially if bloody), erosion, inversion, or tenderness.

It is important to note that pain (or lack thereof) does not indicate the presence or the absence of breast cancer. Any persistent abnormality in the breast should be evaluated by a physician as soon as possible.

Guidelines for the early detection of breast cancer in “average-risk” women, as set forth by the ACS, suggest that women ages 20-39 have a clinical breast examination at least every three years, in addition to performing regular self-examination.

Recommendations for women ages 40 and over include an annual mammogram, annual clinical breast examination (preferably prior to mammogram), and breast self-examination.

While breast cancer is indiscriminate and crosses all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines, there are still accepted risk factors about which women should be aware. These risk factors include being a woman, getting older, having an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 breast cancer gene, a personal history of breast or ovarian cancer, a family history of breast, ovarian or prostate cancer, having high breast density on a mammogram, having a previous biopsy showing atypical hyperplasia, starting menopause after age 55, never having children, having your first child after age 35, radiation exposure, frequent X-rays in youth, high bone density, being overweight after menopause or gaining weight as an adult, and postmenopausal hormone use (current or recent use)of estrogen or estrogen plus progestin.

Experts agree that early detection of breast cancer offers the most options for treatment and the best chances for survival.

Monthly breast self-exams are a good way for women to gain a sense of familiarity with their breast tissue — to know what feels “normal” and what doesn’t. However, only about 25 percent of breast cancers are found through breast examination alone.

Women should continue to perform self-exams on a routine basis. However, digital mammography (or high quality film-screen mammography) is the most reliable way to find breast cancer as early as possible, when it is most curable.
In Pickens County, Cannon Memorial Hospital offers digital mammography screening. For small hospitals like Cannon Memorial, one digital mammography unit is often impossible to factor into budgets. However, planning, fundraising and tons of community support enabled the hospital to equip itself with the best breast cancer screening technology available.

The process of obtaining breast tissue images using digital mammography is not different from traditional film screening. Manipulation and squeezing of the breast is still required to acquire the images. What makes digital mammography advantageous for patients, radiologists and physicians is the fact that once they are downloaded, the images can be studied from multiple perspectives.

With traditional film, radiologists were limited by having to view single images with a light-box and magnifying glass. Digital mammography allows medical professionals the opportunity to manipulate the images, zoom in on questionable areas, compare images side by side and, ultimately, make more accurate diagnoses.

Prior to digital mammography, patients were often required to have additional tests after a traditional mammography to rule out questions or areas of concerns on the film. Digital imaging allows for more extensive screening, which eliminates additional health care costs for patients.

Traditional mammography does not detect breast tissue abnormalities in younger women with the accuracy of digital mammography. Younger women, ages 40 and younger, tend to have denser breast tissue that can make cancer identification difficult. Digital mammography screening enables health care professionals to better “see through” breast tissue density.

In addition to diagnostic benefits, digital mammography maximizes storage efficiency for hospitals. Hospitals are required to keep patient medical records either on site or in secured storage. Year after year of traditional mammography film can take up a great deal of physical space. If a physician wants to make a yearly comparison of a patient’s mammograms, it takes time to physically procure the films. With digital mammography, images are stored electronically and can be retrieved within a matter of minutes.

Digital mammography offers numerous benefits for patients and health care professionals alike.

“We are excited to finally be able to offer this service to the people of Pickens County,” said Amanda Dow, director of community relations for Cannon Memorial Hospital.

Approximately 35 percent of breast cancers are found through mammography alone. 40 percent are found by both physical exam and mammography.

Unfortunately, breast cancer is a serious concern for women of all ages and stages of life, which is why awareness and education is important.

Visit the American Cancer Society online at to learn more about breast cancer, risk factors and tips for prevention.