October is breast cancer awareness month, which brings an opportunity every year to discuss the importance of breast cancer screening in women’s health. Screening is usually done with a mammogram and is important because breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the United States.  One in eight (12%) women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime.  Even though this cancer is extremely common, survival rates have increased considerably during the past 50 years, which has been credited to early detection and improvements in breast cancer treatments.

Advancing age and being female are the most significant risk factors for breast cancer. Family history of breast cancer is also associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, which may warrant genetic testing and more frequent screening, especially when the onset of breast cancer is at a young age.  Identifying high-risk women allows for a referral to genetic counselors and a special testing plan for these patients.

Breast self-awareness, clinical breast exams and mammography are all methods used to screen for breast cancer.  The goal of screening for cancer is to recognize the disease in women without symptoms, which can decrease poor outcomes, improve survival and avoid needing rigorous treatment. Breast self-awareness is a woman’s understanding of the normal appearance and feel of her breasts.  This is an essential part of screening as 50% of breast cancer cases in women over 50 years old are self-identified.  In women younger than 50 years, 71% of breast cancer cases are self-identified. Women should contact their physician if they notice a change in their breast, such as a lump or mass.

Mammography is another crucial component in screening for breast cancer. Regular screening mammography reduces the risk of death resulting from breast cancer in average-risk women.  Women without an increased risk for breast cancer should have screening mammograms every 1-2 years starting at 40 years old.  Some women may notice discomfort during mammograms, however, most agree that it is not enough to discourage them from future screening.  Mammography screening should continue until at least age 75 years, but age alone should not solely determine discontinuation of screening.  This decision should be discussed between the patient and her physician and is based on the woman’s health and life expectancy. Clinical breast exams, performed by her physician, are also used for breast cancer screening.  For average-risk women 25-39 years old, clinical breast exams should be performed every 1-3 years and annually for women over 40 years old.

Breast cancer screening is a vital part of preventative women’s health. Make an appointment with your physician today to discuss your screening recommendations.

Ashleigh Clickett, DO, graduated in 2011 from the Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine with a doctorate of osteopathy degree. She completed her residency at Marshall University where she worked as an OB/GYN. Clickett treats women of all ages. Her areas of interest are general obstetrics and gynecology as well as the continual care of women throughout their lifetime. She sees patients at Valley Health locations in Coal Grove, Fort Gay and Westmoreland.