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Better Breast Health: Good Habits Today Can Save Your Life

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Better Breast Health: Good Habits Today Can Save Your Life

What’s your New Millennium’s resolution?

Whether it’s eating less fat or hitting the gym more. Most women have a combined goal in mind: losing weight and feeling good about themselves. Besides working on looking shapely and feeling healthier, however, you should make it a habit. If you haven’t already – to pay extra-close attention to very intimate female body parts: your breasts (breast health).

If you don’t worry about breast cancer because you think you’re too young, you probably should. Younger women can be affected, too. Besides, your good habits today may prevent dire consequences in the coming years. Early detection can save not only your life but your breasts; treatment for early-stage cancer often involves a simple lumpectomy (removal of the suspicious lump) instead of a painful and disfiguring mastectomy (removal of the entire breast and often significant surrounding tissue).

Certainly, the risk is relatively low for young women: Approximately one of every 100,000 women in their early 20s is diagnosed with breast cancer each year. But what if you’re one of the unlucky few? Several of our young friends have been diagnosed with the disease lately, reminding us very painfully that it could happen to any of us. So taking the time to perform a serious self-exam monthly is certainly worthwhile.

The Best Defense: Early Detection

The bad news: The American Cancer Society says about 175,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed among women in the United States in 1999, and more than 43,000 deaths occurred from the disease. The good news: Breast-cancer mortality rates have been decreasing due to increased screening of women and more advanced techniques, such as digital mammography.

Mammography – a specialized X-ray of the breast – is currently the most effective way to detect breast cancer. “It’s possible for mammograms to miss lumps deep inside the breast, but mammography has proven to be the only screening method that really reduces deaths from breast cancer because it can find small abnormalities in earlier breast cancers,” says Lawrence W. Bassett, MD, FACR, director of the Iris Cantor Center for Breast Imaging at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and chairman of the Breast Task Force of the American College of Radiology. “I rarely see a patient with advanced breast cancer today, and when I do, it’s a matter of neglect or denial,” he notes.

Even though younger women generally don’t get mammograms, they can be vigilant about monthly self-exams. “If a woman in that age group notices something in her breast, she should go see a doctor,” Bassett advises, noting that such lumps are usually benign and just need to be checked with a simple needle biopsy. But for the exceptions, the lumps that turn out to be cancer, early detection is more critical for younger women.

The Breast Cancer Research Foundation says younger women have a lower survival rate than older breast-cancer patients because their tumors are more aggressive and respond less to hormonal therapies.

Early detection is the best defense. “If you start teaching somebody early, like at 18, to do monthly breast exams 7-10 days after their period, they become familiar with their breasts,” states Sherry Goldman, the nurse practitioner at the Revlon/UCLA Breast Center and an assistant clinical professor.

Prevention: How to Improve Your Odds

You may not be able to prevent breast cancer, but you can improve your odds of not getting it. Two key strategies: Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and be physically active. A premenopausal woman who exercises regularly have a lower risk of breast cancer says Trudy Harris, the fitness consultant to the Revlon/UCLA Breast Center’s High-Risk Program. “Exercise, an essential component in weight maintenance, is particularly important because studies indicate that the risk for breast cancer increases with weight gain over a woman’s lifetime,” she explains. Eating soy foods, such as tofu and soy protein, may decrease your risk. Excess alcohol consumption may increase your risk.

Breast Implants: Do They Increase Your Risk?

“There’s absolutely no evidence that breast implants increase the risk of breast cancer,” says David P. Rapaport, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon based in Manhattan, New York. Yet he suggests, “If you’re having breast implants done and you’re 35 or older, you should have a mammogram first.”

He continues: “It’s better [for the implant] to go under the muscle because your breast looks more natural and you get a better mammogram. Breast implants probably make regular self-breast exams easier because there is something behind the breast sort of pushing it forward so it’s easier to feel your breast.”

Possible complications of implants include rupture, infection, shifting of the implant, changes in nipple and breast sensation and sometimes interference with mammography. “All implants block a little bit of the breast on the mammogram,” Rapaport explains. “If you have an implant that’s behind the muscle, it blocks a lot less, so that’s another reason to go behind the muscle.” He adds that women with a strong history of breast cancer probably shouldn’t have the operation.

The bottom line is that you want to preserve your breasts and live a healthy life. Be smart: Get to know your breasts and learn about the best possible mammograms (breast health). Never be afraid to talk to your doctor – or friends and family members – about your breast health. Fear and denial can lead to a deadly outcome.

Guidelines for Detection

For women at usual risk for breast cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends the following guidelines for early detection:

ages 20-39

  Do a breast self-exam each month (breast health).

  Have a clinical breast exam every three years.

ages 40 and over

  Have a mammogram every year (it can reveal small breast cancers up to two years before they can be felt)

  Have a clinical breast exam by a health-care professional every year close to your scheduled mammogram

  Do a breast self-exam each month (breast health).

How to Do a Breast Self-Exam

Every woman 18 and older should conduct a breast self-exam (BSE) each month 7-10 days after her period. To do it right, follow these American Cancer Society guidelines:

  1. Lie down with a pillow under your right shoulder and place your right arm behind your head.
  2. Use the finger pads of the three middle fingers on your left hand to feel for lumps in your right breast.
  3. Press firmly enough to know how your breast feels. A firm ridge in the lower curve of each breast is normal.
  4. Move around your breast in a circular pattern. Make sure you do it the same way every time, checking the entire breast area. Remember how your breast feels from month to month.
  5. Move the pillow under your left shoulder and repeat the exam on your left breast, using the finger pads of your right hand.
  6. Repeat examining both breasts while standing, with one arm behind your head. The upright position makes it easier to check the upper and outer part of your breasts (toward your armpit). This is where about half of all breast cancers are found. You may also want to do the standing part of the BSE while in the shower; some breast changes can be felt more easily when the skin is wet and soapy.

Signs and Symptoms

Early breast cancer usually doesn’t cause pain. In fact, you may have no symptoms at all when breast cancer first develops, but as cancer grows, it can cause changes that you should be aware of:

  A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area

  A change in the size or shape of the breast.

  A discharge from the nipple (breast health).

  A change in the color or feel of the skin of the breast, areola or nipple; it may be dimpled, puckered or scaly.

 

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