As a natural health care provider, I have long leaned away from over-testing, particularly from exposing my body to radiation through mammography. The experience of my mom’s cancer, however, has given me pause and the impetus to research the best way to improve the odds of detecting breast cancer in its early stages.
My mom was a pretty natural lady, too, and by the time of her diagnosis at age 56, she had only had one or two mammograms. She had not had one in a number of years. Like many of us, she wasn’t really great about following through with regular well-woman exams, either, and so didn’t get very frequent clinical breast exams.
In her case, I don’t know how much of an impact these things had on her outcome, since she had inflammatory breast cancer. Unlike most breast cancers that begin with a palpable lump, this aggressive cancer begins with atypical symptoms such as pain, redness, skin changes and swelling. It can be hard to detect on a mammogram and is often initially mistaken for an infection. Still, according to studies, regular mammograms increase the rate of survival from breast cancer by 15-20%, so I do have to wonder what would have happened if she had kept those annual appointments.
More significant than all of this, though, is the fact that she didn’t do regular self-exams. Let’s face it: most of us are pretty bad at remembering to do this. I know I am. But this piece is so very important for a huge reason: we need to be body-aware. In this society, many of us are self-conscious about the way we look, about our weight or our dimples or our wrinkles or our sags – and we look away from our bodies as we pass the mirror on the way to the shower. For our overall health, including breast health, we need to become familiar with how every part of our bodies normally look and feel so that we will know when something isn’t right.
This is what was missing for my mom. She didn’t check in on her body on a regular basis, and so she was slow in realizing that something was wrong with the way her breasts looked and felt. Later, she reported to me that she had felt soreness under her arm as early as late summer that was bothering her enough that she didn’t want to lower her arm all of the way. By the time the pain was bad enough to make her finally look in the mirror with her shirt off, the changes in her breast were so obvious that she knew immediately that she had cancer.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the importance of breast cancer screening ad nauseam, but let me throw a little bit in here about what I have learned. First, it appears that mammography does have an impact on survival rates. Being the crunchy person I am, though, I am still delving into data on radiation exposure (which seems to be low). Also, as a crunchy person, I am a big fan of alternative testing, such as thermography. I have used thermograms as my replacement for mammograms for many years, but it appears that the data is showing that the best result is achieved when both thermography and mammography are used as part of a regular breast health screening regimen. Note that this regimen is a departure from the norm, so it isn’t for everyone. But for interested persons, information on thermography can be found in the references below.
Women with a moderate to high risk of breast cancer, based on family or personal history, may consider adding MRI to the mix, as these tend to pick up on breast changes a little differently. Ultrasound can be used in addition to other testing, as well, but can be associated with higher false positives when used alone. Regular clinical breast exams with your health care provider are an important part of monitoring your breast health. And, of course, above all, we need to do monthly self-exams to be on top of breast changes. Instructions can be found below.
Whatever direction you go with for your breast screening, the take-home message is that we are the caretakers of our bodies. Our bodies need us to promote health and stave off disease by eating healthy food and being active, and by practicing loving awareness of our bodies during health so that we can spot disease in its early stages. We must do this for ourselves and for our families.
You can find all kinds of info about breast cancer and screening on these informative websites: