Surviving Breast Cancer: Early Detection & Treatment

woman with shaved head looking out window in a sad way

The second leading cause of cancer deaths in women today is breast cancer. A woman today has a 1 in 7 chance of developing invasive breast cancera cancer that spreads beyond its original siteduring her lifetime.

There is good news, however.

After rising through the 1980s, the number of women developing breast cancers in the 90s leveled off, and studies have shown that the number of women dying from their breast cancer has declined significantly. In other words, less women are getting cancer, and more women are surviving cancer.

Monitoring for Breast Cancer

Medical experts agree that the keys to surviving breast cancer are early detection and early treatment. According to the American Cancer Society, when breast cancer is confined to its earliest stage in the breast, the five-year survival rate is close to 100%. There are three key components to early detection and treatment of breast cancer: breast self-examination (BSE), doctor breast examination, and regular mammograms.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women have a mammogram performed every one to two years beginning at the age of 40, and once a year after age 50. Doctor examination of the breast should take place every 3 years, and a BSE should be performed every month, approximately one week following menstruation.

woman in hospital gown receiving breast examination from female doctor

The 5 Steps of a BSE 

STEP 1: Look at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips. 

Here’s what you should see: 

  • breasts that are their usual size, shape, and color. 
  • breasts that are evenly shaped without visible distortion or swelling. 

If you notice any of the following changes, bring them to your doctor’s attention: 

  • dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin. 
  • a nipple that has changed position or an inverted nipple (pushed inward instead of sticking out). 
  • redness, soreness, rash, or swelling. 

STEP 2: Raise your arms and look for the same changes. 

STEP 3: While you’re at the mirror, gently squeeze each nipple between your finger and thumb and check for nipple discharge (this could be a milky or yellow fluid or blood). 

STEP 4: Feel your breasts while lying down, using your right hand to feel your left breast and then your left hand to feel your right breast. Use a firm, smooth touch with the first few fingers of your hand, keeping the fingers flat and together. 

Cover the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side, from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your sternum. 

Follow a pattern to be sure that you cover the whole breast. You can begin at the nipple, moving in larger circles until you reach the outer edge of the breast. You can also move your fingers up and down or across in rows. Be sure to feel all the breast tissue: just beneath your skin with a soft touch and down deeper with a firmer touch. Begin examining each area with a very soft touch, and then increase pressure so that you can feel the deeper tissue, down to your ribcage. 

STEP 5: Finally, feel your breasts while you are standing or sitting. Many women find that the easiest way to feel their breasts is when their skin is wet, so they like to do this step in the shower. Cover your entire breast, using the same hand movements described in Step 4. 


Owning Your Health

BSEs are just one tool to help you detect cancer at its earliest stage when it’s at its most curable and treatable. After reading this article and looking at the other resources listed below, if you have any concerns or questions talk to your doctor. Take charge of your healthcare through knowing what you can, and asking about what you don’t. Done correctly and regularly, BSEs save lives.

Links for further information on BSE: – Good animation on BSE – Imaginis is an excellent overall resource on breast cancer and much of this article was based on information found there

Links to Other U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics: – American Cancer Society Breast Cancer Facts & Figures – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Cancer Data – * SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1973-1997 (National Cancer Institute) – this is the source of the five steps discussed here, but the website also has a lot of other useful information.

Author: William A. Cirignani
Assistant: Deborah Alexander


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