A few weeks ago, I saw a woman for genetic counseling. She was in her early 60s, and had been diagnosed with breast cancer twice in the same breast. The first time was in her 30s, the second time was within the past few months. Before starting to review her family history, I asked her about her prior cancer diagnoses. This recent cancer diagnosis was identified on a routine mammogram, but her first diagnosis would have been before she started routine breast screening via mammography. “How did you find it?” I asked…
She then proceeded to tell me the following story: “Well, you see. I got this pamphlet in the mail with instructions on how to do a breast self exam. I had never done one before. And usually, I would throw these things out, but I figured, sure, why not? And I took the pamphlet with me into my bedroom, followed the instructions, and did a breast self exam. And I felt something. So I went to my doctor and told her that I had felt something in my breast. She said, “don’t tell me where you felt it, let me try to find it myself.” So she did a breast exam and she didn’t feel anything. So she had me show her where I felt it, and sure enough she said, ‘you know, I do feel something there. I’m sending you for a biopsy.’ And that’s how they found my first breast cancer. That pamphlet saved my life. I wouldn’t be around today if it wasn’t for that..”
In the last few years, there have been a number of controversies over the best route for breast screening. Should routine mammograms begin at age 40 or at age 50? Should women have clinical breast exams performed by their physician, and if so, how often? Should women perform self breast exams at all? As more research is being done in the realm of breast screening, different opinions have been emerging as to the efficacy of these different screening methods.
One of the interesting shifts has been away from the breast self exam in favor of breast self awareness. The idea behind breast self awareness is that a woman should be aware of how her breasts normally look and feel, so that she can report any changes to her doctor. This differs from the breast self exam, which is a structured procedure of how women should be evaluating their breasts on a regular basis. Many women feel uncomfortable doing a breast self exam, unsure of what they should be looking for. Research found that not only did breast self exams not reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer, but it actually increased the detection of non-cancerous lesions, which required further evaluation, such as a breast biopsy. This research has contributed to the change in recommendations away from self breast exams and toward self breast awareness.
But then I think about the countless stories that I have heard of women, including my patient, who found their own breast cancer by doing a breast self exam. I hear her words echoing back, “That pamphlet saved my life. I wouldn’t be around today if it wasn’t for that…” and I wonder how she would feel about the change in recommendations.
For those of us with friends or family members who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, or with personal diagnoses of breast cancer ourselves, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month can feel empowering, overwhelming, or even stifling. And with the statistic of 1 in 8 women developing breast cancer in the United States, breast cancer is a disease that should feel relevant, even if one does not have a “personal connection” so to speak. Perhaps for all those who don’t see the relevance, they can think of this October as Breast Awareness Month, and instead of focusing on this disease they can focus on the breast awareness which might someday save their lives.