By Kristen Bongiovi
With a history of breast cancer in my family I am a big proponent of being proactive with my health. Fortunately, there are breast cancer screenings available for early detection, such as mammograms and at home self-exams. As a young mother of two children and having had lost my grandmother to breast cancer at a young age, I always make sure I am up to date on my screenings and routinely conduct self-exams.
In 2021, while doing an at home self-exam, I found two large lumps. I reached out to my doctor, and I was brought in for additional testing. The doctor recommended I have the lumps biopsied. Thankfully, they were benign.
Six-months later at a follow-up, my doctors found another lump. While large in size, it appeared normal on the ultrasound and no further testing was needed. Later, I was fortunate enough to meet with my colleague, Senior Medical Director Dr. Frank Urbano, MD, MBA, FACP to ask him questions about my personal experience and further educate myself on the importance of cancer prevention.
Coping with a family history of breast cancer
How important is it to screen before the recommended age, when there is significant family history? What age do you recommend?
According to the American Cancer Society, women aged 45 – 54 should get annual mammograms, and once aged 55, women can reduce frequency to mammography every 2 years. There are certain instances when a woman younger than 44 should consider being screened with mammography. Examples include a history of radiation to the chest wall, presence of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation via genetic analysis, and presence of the same mutations in a first-degree family member. There are also tools available which may estimate a woman’s risk of breast cancer, and if this risk is considered high, earlier screening is recommended.
The bottom line here is that many factors may increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer and therefore a need for earlier screening. The most important thing you can do to determine when to start screening for breast cancer is to talk to your doctor.
Knowing that someone may have several benign lumps, how do you monitor change in between mammograms, other than size?
Every individual’s case is unique, so there may not be one specific recommendation that suits everyone. The presence of benign breast lumps may increase your risk of breast cancer in the future, so it is important to discuss screening recommendations with your doctor.
Do you have any advice for people living with the fear of early onset breast cancer in between routine exams? Does every abnormal self-exam warrant a full diagnostic exam?
The most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of breast cancer is to get checked out by your doctor, and when appropriate, undergo mammography screening. Some people may become very concerned about any perceived abnormalities on a self-breast exam. I would suggest you see your doctor and ask them to educate you on how to do a proper self-breast exam, and this may put your mind at ease. Ultimately, though, if you feel an abnormality on your breast exam, and you are worried it might be cancer, see your doctor.
National Cancer Prevention Month
February is also National Cancer Prevention Month, which gives us another opportunity to raise awareness about cancer and the importance of early detection. Dr. Urbano, I’d love to hear your perspective on this topic and what we should take away from this national observance.
Dr. Frank Urbano: With more than 100 types of cancer, some more common than others, cancer is said to be one of the world’s leading causes of death. However, thousands of cancer cases and deaths can be prevented through early detection and screening. Thankfully, in recent years cancer research and more effective treatment has decreased the death rate for cancer.
National Cancer Prevention Month is an important observance because it reminds us to maintain a healthy lifestyle. As I’ve said before, throughout the pandemic, we’ve learned that prioritizing our physical health is more important than ever. It’s critical to maintain good health and access necessary health care services, including routine care and preventive screenings.
Kristen: Thank you Dr. Urbano for your insight. I know that this conversation has encouraged me to continue to take my health seriously, not just for me, but also for my family.
While I have a clean bill of health today, cancer prevention and early screenings are always top of mind. I hope that through sharing my experience I have encouraged at least one of you to conduct at home self-exams and prioritize your cancer screenings.