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NEWS | Oct. 10, 2019

Early detection, regular screenings help in fight against breast cancer

By Robert Goetz 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Early detection is one of the keys in fighting a disease that will take the lives of an estimated 42,000 people in the United States this year, most of them women.

At Joint Base San Antonio medical clinics, early detection is the focus of health care providers’ efforts to combat breast cancer, the second most common cancer affecting women in the U.S., and screening is their most important tool.

Several tests can help detect breast cancer, starting with a mammogram, said registered nurse Debbie Mason, 359th Medical Group Disease Management.

“A mammogram is a type of X-ray that doctors commonly use during an initial breast cancer screening,” she said. “It produces images that help a doctor detect any lumps or abnormalities.”

A doctor follows any suspicious results with further testing. Those tests are ultrasound, a scan that uses sound waves to help a doctor differentiate between a solid mass and a fluid-filled cyst, and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, which combines different images of the breast to help a doctor identify cancer or other abnormalities.

“A doctor may recommend an MRI as a follow-up to a mammogram or ultrasound,” Mason said. “Doctors sometimes use them as a screening tool for those at higher risk of breast cancer.”

Age is an important consideration when it comes to mammogram screening.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women with an average risk of breast cancer between the ages of 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year, and women 45 to 54 should have a mammogram every year. In addition, women age 55 and older have an option to have a mammogram annually or every other year.

The ACS defines average risk as no personal history of breast cancer, no strong family history of the disease and no genetic mutation known to increase the risk of breast cancer.

Women who are at high risk for breast cancer should have an MRI and mammogram every year. High-risk factors are having a parent, sibling or child with a history of breast cancer; or having a parent or sibling with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation.

Women who are not at high risk for breast cancer should not be complacent, said Capt. Melissa Everage, 59th Training Squadron Women's Health Nurse Practitioner student.

“It’s important to be proactive because 85 percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease,” she said.

According to the ACS, women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to a health care provider.

The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass that is hard and painless, with irregular borders, but other symptoms include red, scaly nipples; skin dimpling; unilateral nipple retraction; and nipple discharge. However, soft, tender, round lumps should not be disregarded.

Regular screening is essential since many women with breast cancer have no symptoms initially.

Screening detects breast cancer before symptoms appear, Everage said. Early detection leads to quicker treatments and better outcomes.

Although there is no way to prevent breast cancer, certain lifestyle decisions can significantly reduce the risk of breast cancer, Mason said.

“These include not smoking, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, following a healthful diet containing plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, getting enough exercise and maintaining a healthy body mass index,” she said. “Women should also consider their options for the use of hormone replacement therapy following menopause, as this can also increase the risk.”

The JBSA-Randolph Medical Clinic takes a proactive approach to educating its patients about breast cancer, Mason said.

“Females are educated by their providers at their annual well woman appointments during their exams,” she said. “Mammogram reminder postcards are mailed to women who are due or overdue for their mammograms by medical management.”