Breast Cancer Awareness: Knowing the Facts

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This year alone, more than 200,000 Americans will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,000 will die from the disease.

A healthy lifestyle and early detection is key to fighting the cancer -- something Pam Schmid can attest to. As a breast cancer survivor, she said she now sees every day as a gift from God.

"It can happen. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone," she told CBN News.

Who's at Risk?

The shocking news came following Schmid's yearly mammogram. Breast X-rays can detect cancer when it's still very small, which is valuable because cancer becomes deadlier as it spreads to vital organs.

"The phone rang. It was eight in the morning. My husband happened to be home still. He was standing there, and I said, 'Oh my God, they think I have breast cancer,'" Schmid recalled. "And he started crying. I started crying. It was devastating. I mean, it was shocking."    

In her new book, 101 Things You Should Know About Breast Cancer, Schmid chronicles how she suffered through a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and reconstructive surgery.

She recognizes the fact that most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.

How Soon is Too Soon?

Schmid's prognosis is good because she caught her cancer early -- thanks to the mammogram she got in her 40s. But a government panel now recommends women wait until age 50 to begin getting the annual checkups.

"I ended up having four tumors, one was fairly large," Schmid said. "If I had waited, there's no doubt it would have spread. And if I had waited until I was 50, I wouldn't be here."

But there's some skepticism about getting a mammogram so early.

Athough mammograms reduce the risk of dying by 15 percent among women in their 40s, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says the risks of false positives and invasive procedures outweigh the benefits.

The group adds that mammograms performed on women in their 40s save one life for every 1,900 mammograms performed, while for women in their 50s, one life for every 1,300 mammograms is saved.

Disputing New Guidelines

Radiologist Dr. Nina Fabiszewski specializes in reading mammograms at Virginia's Sentara Cancer Network, which is one of only 32 systems nationwide with accreditation by The American College of Surgeons.  She disputes the government's new guidelines.  

"We don't have enough information yet to say 'No, you don't need to have mammograms in your 40s,'" she said.

"We identified about the same number of cancers in the 40-year-olds as we did (with those in their 50s)," Fabiszewski added.

A recent Swedish study of a million women followed for 20 years also suggests screening women in their 40s could reduce the death rate by almost 30 percent.

Because of promising research like this, the American Cancer Society and several doctors continue to stick by the original recommendation of women beginning mammograms at age 40.

Other Precautions

In addition to getting mammograms, doctors also recommend women do their own breast self exams every month at home, immediately following menstruation.

Using two fingers, women should press down firmly in small circles over the entire breast area.  If a thickening or lump that may feel like a pebble or frozen pea is notices, the woman should consult her doctor. 

Faye Euphrasia is a Patient Navigator at Sentara and answers questions patients may have about their treatment. She also speaks to church groups and civic organizations about breast health.

"I always encourage patients to know their breasts better than their doctor," Euphrasia said. "So that if they know something is new, they can point it out to the doctor and say, 'This is something different that I've noticed. Can we follow up on this.'"

Euphrasia also pointed to research that suggests a person's chance of getting breast cancer can be reduced by exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables.

She added that the chance of getting breast cancer is reduced if women stay away from sugar, trans fats, alcohol, and tobacco.

Fact vs. Fiction

There are also several myths associated with breast cancer that should be eliminated.

  • Deodorants and antiperspirants don't cause breast cancer. A 2002 epidemiologic study of 1,600 women and other research has shown no correlation. 
  • Clothing, including under wire bras, does not contribute to getting breast cancer.
  • Having large breasts or breast implants does not put a woman at greater risk.
  • Radiation from a mammogram does not pose a significant threat to women.

"It's about the same amount of radiation as if you take an airplane trip from Boston to L.A.," Dr. Fabiszewsk explained. "It's a very low amount. Much less than, say, a chest x-ray."

While mammograms aren't perfect, they do save lives.

"I would have missed my son's graduation from college, I would have missed my son's wedding," Schmid said. "He's got a beautiful wife. I have a daughter finally. But these are the things you miss if you don't go get a mammogram."

**Originally published Oct. 13, 2010

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Lorie  Johnson

Lorie Johnson

CBN News Medical Reporter

Lorie Johnson reports on the latest information about health and wellness. Since medicine is constantly changing, she makes sure CBN News viewers are up-to-date on what they need to know in order to live a healthy life.  Follow Lorie on Twitter @LorieCBN and "like" her at Facebook.com/LorieJohnsonCBN.