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Don’t forget your mammogram

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Approximately one in eight women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in their lifetime.

“It is incredibly common,” said Dr. Malaika Thompson, a breast radiologist at UCHealth Gloria Gossard Breast Cancer Center. The good news is “breast cancer is very, very curable.”

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women, except for skin cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.

“While it is scary to think about — it is also very reassuring because breast cancer of treatment of breast cancer is so incredibly successful,” Thompson said.

But the earlier it is identified and treated, the more successful treatment is, Thompson emphasized. Early detection — before there are any palpable lumps — means the cancer stays smaller and has a higher rate of curing, she said. 

That is not to say it is an easy journey. Or guaranteed.

Approximately 41,760 women and 500 men were estimated to die from breast cancer in 2019, according to the American Cancer Society.

But for recovery — the statistics are hopeful.

For cancer that has not spread outside the breast, the 5-year survival rate is 99%, according to the American Cancer Society.

For cancer that has spread outside the breast to nearby structures or lymph nodes, it is 86%.

“The vast majority of women diagnosed do incredibly well,” Thompson said.

And a key to early detection is keeping up with yearly screenings beginning at the age of 40.

Annual screenings are covered by insurance plans, but for people without insurance, the Bust of Steamboat can help with expenses.

One in six cases of breast are diagnosed in women who are in their 40’s, she said.

Those screenings typically start with a mammogram, but may also include an ultrasound and/or an MRI, depending on what shows up on the mammogram.

And, those initial screenings also help to set a baseline for identifying potential future risk factors. The density of breast tissue — unrelated to breast size — plays a significant role, Thompson described.

Fatty tissue is easier to see through, she said, while glandular, denser tissue is harder to see through — and may require an additional surveillance technique. Denser breasts can signal a higher risk.

The technology has advanced significantly. The mammogram process now involves 3D imaging, so that doctors can view thinner slices of the breast. However previously, separate images were required to get both the 3D and 2D images. Now, Thompson said, she is able to create the 2D data off of the 3D data, “So the radiation dose is reduced by half.”

The dose is very low to begin with, she noted, but a very good thing to be able to reduce it further.

What to look for . . .

Knowing how your breasts normally look and feel is an important part of breast health. Although having regular screening tests for breast cancer is important, mammograms do not find every breast cancer. This means it’s also important for you to be aware of changes in your breasts and to know the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.

The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancer, but breast cancers can be tender, soft, or round. They can even be painful. For this reason, it’s important to have any new breast mass, lump, or breast change checked by an experienced health care professional.

Other possible symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt)
  • Skin dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)
  • Nipple or breast skin that is red, dry, flaking or thickened
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
  • Swollen lymph nodes (Sometimes a breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast is large enough to be felt.)

Although any of these symptoms can be caused by things other than breast cancer, if you have them, they should be reported to a health care professional so the cause can be found.

(Source: American Cancer Society)

From mid-March to mid-May, during the COVID-19 pandemic, 368 screening mammograms and non-urgent checkups were cancelled at the cancer center in Steamboat, Thompson noted. Since then, 95% have been rescheduled. “It’s really good we got almost everyone back in,” she said. “It’s important to come back and resume normal screenings.” Two of those patients who cancelled and then rescheduled were diagnosed with breast cancer, she said. “And both have done extraordinarily well.”

It is important to know if you fall into the higher risk category, Thompson said. However it is equally important, she emphasized, to be aware that three-quarters of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history.

The primary risk factors for breast cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), include being a woman and getting older — and the risk increases with age. Most breast cancers are found in women ages 50 and older.

Other risk factors “you cannot change,” according to the CDC, include genetic mutations, starting menstruation before 12 and menopause after 55, having dense breasts, a personal history of breast cancer or breast disease, or a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, previous radiation therapy on the breasts or chests. The category also includes women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), which was given to women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage.

The CDC’s list of risk factors “you can change” includes not being physically active, being overweight after menopause, taking hormones (some forms of hormone replacement therapy and oral contraceptives), and drinking alcohol. The CDC also cites reproductive history as increasing risk, which includes “Having the first pregnancy after age 30, not breastfeeding, and never having a full-term pregnancy.”

But again, Thompson makes sure to stress that many women without any known risk factors also get breast cancer.

With questions or to schedule a mammogram at the UCHealth Gloria Gossard Breast Cancer Center, call 970.875.6409.

To learn more about the resources provided by the Bust of Steamboat visit https://thebustofsteamboat.org/index.html, or email at info@thebustofsteamboat.org

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.


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