My Turn: Early cancer detection helps save women's lives

Posted: Wednesday, October 19, 2005

T his year, more than 211,240 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and approximately 40,410 will lose their lives from the disease. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer for women in Alaska, and it is estimated that we will see 260 new diagnoses this year and 50 deaths.

Too many women rationalize away that clinical exam or doctor's visit by saying "It won't happen to me." The fact is, all women are at risk for breast cancer and not getting screened only increases the danger.

I'll admit I used to have a similar attitude. But as I've met more people whose lives have been affected by this disease, I've made a concerted effort to learn the facts about breast cancer detection and treatment.

At this moment, there are slightly more than 2 million women living in the United States who have been treated for this disease. Through early detection, improved treatment and the benefits of research, education and awareness, the death rate from breast cancer is declining. When found and treated early, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is 98 percent.

The average annual breast cancer incidence rate among women in Alaska from 1998 to 2000 was 141.3 per 100,000. From 1997 to 2001, the average annual mortality rate among Alaskan women was 23.9 per 100,000.

A combination of monthly breast self-exams, yearly clinical breast exams and regular mammograms beginning at age 40 are the best way to detect breast cancer in its earliest and most treatable stages.

We can all do our part in further reducing the incidence of breast cancer by knowing our risk, getting screened, and talking with our family, friends and loved ones about prevention.

Women with a family history of breast cancer, women with inherited abnormal genes, women who have previously had cancer in one breast, and obese women with sedentary lifestyles are at high risk. Age is also a risk factor as about 77 percent of the women diagnosed are over the age of 50.

Every woman should examine her breasts once a month to check for physical changes. If you are unsure of how to perform a breast self-exam, ask your health care provider. It is very important for women to become familiar with their breasts and understand what feels normal. Start early, beginning at age 20.

Make it a point to have a clinical breast exam each year by a health care provider who will look for any lumps or other possible warning signs of breast cancer. You should begin having clinical breast exams in your 20s and 30s.

Women older than 39 should have an annual mammogram, which has proven to be the most effective method of detecting changes in your breast that appear long before physical symptoms can be seen or felt. It is a good idea to have a baseline mammogram at the age of 35.

Breast cancer is often detected in its earliest stage as an abnormality on a mammogram. But all women should be alert for the following physical symptoms: breast lump or thickening; swelling, redness or tenderness; a change in color or texture of the skin or nipple; dimpling or puckering of the skin; nipple pain, discharge, scaliness or retraction; and lumps under the armpit area.

If you suspect that you are at high risk for the disease, talk to your health care provider. With the advances in prevention, there are drugs available to help prevent breast cancer for the higher risk categories.

Other common sense prevention tips include living a smoke-free lifestyle, maintaining a diet low in fat and exercising regularly.

If you would like additional information on cancer prevention, please contact the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation.

• Nancy Murkowski is the first lady of Alaska and a member of Congressional Families Action for Cancer Awareness, a program of the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation.



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