Pink ribbon

Karen M. of Oak Park started getting mammograms in her 40s, but she fortunately didn’t depend on that alone. While performing a monthly breast self-exam, she picked up an irregularity that her mammogram had missed.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2011, There will be 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer among U.S. women. Most, like Karen, will count themselves among the survivors, but an estimated 40,000 women (and about 450 men) will die from it. Each October, the little pink ribbons come out for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Some wear them to honor a loved one who survived breast cancer, or didn’t. Some companies use the ribbon on packaging to increase sales with an implied promise of donating proceeds to breast cancer research (the skeptical view can be seen on But all of us can use the reminder of how to succeed at the early detection game.

Many women over 40 have a yearly mammogram, which is an important diagnostic tool, but as Karen learned, adding a monthly self-examination is an important practice. After all, who knows “the girls” better than you do? As with all cancers, early diagnosis is the key to successful treatment and recovery. In addition to your self exam (and the annual once-over by your doctor), the National Cancer Institute suggests keeping an eye out for the following signs:

1. A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area

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

3. Nipple discharge or tenderness

4. An inverted nipple

5. Ridges or pitting on the breast (resembling an orange peel)

6. A change in the look or feel of the breast, areola or nipple (such as warmth, swelling, redness or a scaly feel)

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, consult your doctor ASAP.

So what about mammograms? There is some controversy about whether this is the best diagnostic tool, or when to start having them. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force did an analysis that found that mammography only modestly reduced the risk of breast cancer death in women age 40 to 49. In this group, the risk of false positive results is quite high. It recommends that women in this age group not have routine mammograms. The American College of Physicians recommends that this decision be made by the individual based on her breast cancer risk profile and her own preferences.

Most major health organizations agree that all women over the age of 50 would benefit from yearly mammograms.

You can learn lots and lots about breast cancer prevention, statistics, research and of course make a donation at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure website,

Karen has been cancer-free for five years, but she’s not letting down her guard. “It is a lifelong thing that one still needs to be concerned about,” she said. She is making sure that she stays as healthy as possible with regular checkups and paying attention to her diet, exercise, and exposure to environmental toxins. Most of all she’s not taking a day that goes by for granted.

“I wouldn’t wish that diagnosis on anyone, but it is a blessing in disguise to have had that wake-up call,” she said.

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Lisa Browdy

We all know what to do, and many of us resolve to do it every year: eat better, exercise more, lose weight and reduce stress. We may have many demands on our time and energy, and not a lot of cash to spare...