Breast Cancer – Catching it Early

I write this article in honor of October being Breast Cancer Awareness month. Most of us know someone within our close social circle who has been through this terrible ordeal. This is not surprising, as the National Cancer Institute estimates that there were about 2.4 million women breast cancer survivors in 2004, with a 3.5% increase annually in the incidence of breast cancer. Unfortunately, this means more deaths in 2008 and 2009, unless women respond to the pleas for regular screening so that the disease may be detected early.

The easiest method of screening is, of course, self-examination. This is easy and can be performed in the privacy of one’s home. Many reliable medical websites provide information on the step-by-step process of the breast self-examination. A new tool called Cue is being released this month — this is a small device that may be placed in the shower. It is a small disc like instrument that reminds women of the best time in the month for breast exams, and also provides reminders when it is time for a mammogram.

The CDC recommends that women above 40 years of age schedule a mammogram every two years in addition to regular self-exams. A newer method of screening is the breast ultrasound, using the reflective properties of sonic waves to detect lumps and areas of calcification. When used as an adjunct to mammograms, more diagnoses of Cancer can be made. MRI is the most sensitive at detecting such potentially cancerous masses at much earlier stages of the disease. However, a MRI is recommended for women who are at a high risk (due to genetic, familial and environmental factors) of developing cancer. If lumps or masses are detected, a biopsy usually follows to check if the lump is malignant or benign.

Apart from these specific screening tools, a healthy daily lifestyle may also help decrease the risk of cancer. Foods high in beta-carotene and fiber such as carrots, legumes, squash, and whole grains may have anti-oxidant properties, lowering cancer risk. Foods high in saturated fats such as red meats, margarine, whole fat creams and cheeses may increase risk of all forms of cancer. Getting regular exercise and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption also contributes towards decreasing the risk of cancer.

Talking to friends and family to spread awareness is more important now than ever. Print, internet and broadcast media are doing an excellent job of promoting an understanding of this condition. Little steps can go a long way, and spreading awareness and encouraging everyone to do the same will help early detection and potentially save lives.


C. K. Kuhl (2005). Mammography, Breast Ultrasound, and Magnetic Resonance Imaging for Surveillance of Women at High Familial Risk for Breast Cancer Journal of Clinical Oncology, 23 (33), 8469-8476 DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2004.00.4960

Nirupama Shankar, PT, MHS

Nirupama Shankar, PT, MHS, is a physical therapist by profession, and has over 7 years of clinical experience in the field of neurological rehabilitation. She has treated individuals with stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and amputations. She has also completed training modules and community education projects in Michigan and North Carolina.
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