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Beating Breast Cancer: Do you know the key?

Breast cancer awareness.By the end of 2011, more than 200,000 women in the United States will have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Of those women, nearly 40,000 will die of the disease.

The best way to beat it? “Catch it early,” says Oncologist Keith Shulman, M.D. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Shulman spoke on October 11 to community members and Weiss staff as part of the hospital’s monthly “Learning Café.”

Currently, he says, 2.5 million women have survived the most common cancer that women face in their lifetimes, occurring in one out of every eight.

Within the breast, a series of ducts surrounds the nipple. Beyond the ducts are lobules, where milk is produced. The ducts then carry the milk to the nipple. And in breast cancer, the cancer typically occurs in the ducts, called “ductal carcinoma.”

Symptoms include swelling, discharge, pain, redness, nipple inversion and lumps within the breast. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends an action plan to aid in detection. Called the “ABCs of Breast Cancer,” the organization recommends:

  •  A: Mammogram—“These simple breast x-rays are quick, easy and safe,” the ACS writes in an education pamphlet. “You and your doctor may not feel a lump until it is the size of a pea. But a mammogram can find cancers when they are very small, often several years before a lump or change can be felt.” Find a facility that specializes in mammography, conducting at least three to five mammograms a day. Also make sure to schedule the mammogram when your breasts are not swollen or tender to reduce discomfort and enhance the image quality.
  • B: Breast Exam—Women in their 20s and 30s should undergo a clinical breast exam as part of their annual health checkups. “A thorough breast exam can take up to 10 minutes. Talk to your doctor if you feel that your exam was incomplete or rushed,” the ACS advises.
  • C: Breast Awareness—“You should become familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel so that if changes occur, you can report them to your doctor right away,” according to the ACS pamphlet. Pay attention to any dimpling of the skin or differences in appearance, in addition to how they feel. And remember to examine your breasts at the same time every month. If you notice any changes, see your doctor. “Most breast changes are not cancer, but you won’t know if you don’t ask.”
If a physician suspects cancer, she will conduct a biopsy to ensure a proper diagnosis. The patient may also undergo imaging tests, such as MRI or CT scan.

According to Dr. Shulman, the median age of diagnosis in the U.S. is 61. Risk factors include:
  •  Age
  • Family history
  • Race (Caucasians have the highest incidence, at 127.3 per 100,000 women.)
  • Dense breast tissue (a marker of estrogen exposure)
  • Period before age 12 or after age 55
  • No children or no breast feeding
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol (more than two drinks per day)
  • Lack of exercise
However, Dr. Shulman stresses, regardless of risk factors, women need to pay attention to warning signs and symptoms. They have to become familiar with their bodies, and find the courage to make the call—possibly the most important call of their lives—if they notice a change.

For more information on breast cancer, visit the American Cancer Society or the Susan G. Komen Foundation. You can also schedule a consultation with Dr. Shulman by calling (773) 564-5030.

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