By Anjeanette Brown, M.D.
Breast surgeon, AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Board Certified by the American Board of Surgery, Fellowship trained in breast surgery and diseases of the breast, and United States Navy veteran
“I can’t find the time between work and my family.”
“It will be uncomfortable.
“I’m confused about the guidelines.”
“I’m afraid it might show something.”
“I’m afraid of the cost.
“I’m afraid of going into a healthcare setting during the pandemic.”
These are some of the reasons women give for not getting screening and diagnostic mammograms timely. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast health is important throughout a woman’s life, not just one month a year.
Some people spend more time picking out a cell phone or a skin moisturizer than they do planning for and heeding their own breast health.
All women should know their breasts and have age- and risk-appropriate breast cancer and other screenings. Women should have regular wellness appointments with a primary care provider and gynecologist. These providers can – and should – teach women how to examine their own breasts.
Men should discuss their risks for breast cancer and other cancers during their annual well visits, too. Risk factors that increase male breast cancer include older age, exposure to estrogen, Klinefelter syndrome, obesity, family history of breast cancer (especially with a genetic mutation involving the BRCA 2 gene), liver disease, and testicular disease/surgery.
We all know someone who has been impacted by breast cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), breast cancer is the second most common cancer in American women and approximately one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
The ACS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other organizations and task forces have issued guidelines about breast cancer screenings. Widespread news coverage with only limited details about studies, guidelines, recommendations can be confusing. Most women should have their first mammogram – known as a baseline mammogram – at age 40. For some women, the risk is greater (For example, having family history or having had radiation exposure at a young age).
Knowing that risk and sharing it with all your care providers will help you to work with them – and other specialists as needed – to ensure you have the right screenings at the right time for you. This could include ultrasounds, MRIs, or IV contrast mammography. It could also mean that you are getting a screening even though you consider yourself to be “healthy.” You could also be a candidate for genetic testing based on your family history. You and your physician would use this information to schedule appropriate screenings.
I so often hear, “I’m afraid of getting a mammogram because I think it will be uncomfortable,” or “I’m afraid they might find something.” The few seconds of compression a mammogram requires could help in detecting cancer early – which is key to treating cancer. “They” are the trained healthcare providers who can help you to get the care you’ll need if there is a problem. Just as we have the most advanced technology to diagnose cancer, so, too are we learning and doing more every day to treat cancer.
Regarding the most recent excuse I’ve heard - being concerned about visiting a healthcare setting during the pandemic - is a reason some are putting off care. My colleagues and I have screened and cared for patients throughout the pandemic. AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s hospital campuses are taking extraordinary measures to protect patients, families, and staff. So, too are its Cancer Care Institute, a Fox Chase Cancer Center Partner, with locations in Cape May Court House and Egg Harbor Township, and our offices. I’ve continued to see patients who’ve had surgery and other treatment over the last ten months, I’ve told them seeking care timely was a life-saving decision.
I empathize with women when they tell me they put off getting their mammogram. They share that they’re caring for their own parents and children, juggling work and life, and dealing with all of the new challenges the pandemic has caused. We can best take care of others – and be most effective at what we want to do – when we take care of ourselves. Women will also tell me they didn’t get screened because they couldn’t afford it. Healthcare providers and insurance companies can help men and women who have financial need determine coverage for screenings as well as programs and services for which they are eligible.
As a physician, mother, and friend, I believe it is important for us to speak frankly about breast health.
This means starting candid conversations early. Maybe it is a private moment discussing changes puberty brings. You might mention at dinner that you’re skipping soccer mom duties to make time for a mammogram. Include your family’s breast cancer history during pediatric well visits for all your children. Be an example. Be the voice for screenings.
And finally, speaking of prevention, get your flu shot and encourage others to do so. This helps protect you, your loved ones, and others from flu. This is especially important for those who have or are at risk for cancer and other health issues.
For more information about breast health, genetic testing, and other screenings, or to find a primary or specialty care provider, call the AtlantiCare Access Center at 1-888-569-1000 or visit www.atlanticare.org and click on “Find a Provider” to book an appointment online.