For many of us, the pandemic has turned our lives upside down. We have learned to be flexible as we’ve adapted to new work, home, and personal rhythms. Chances are, our personal health needs have fallen low on our to-do list.
If you’ve ignored concerning symptoms – that lingering rash or unusual swelling – you are not alone. In fact, many of us are delaying seeing a physician about a change in our health. The National Center for Health Statistics reports slightly more than 20% of people over the age of 18 visit their primary physician within three months of the onset of a new health symptom. The number declines further for people over 65.
Responding quickly to new symptoms is especially important for detecting and preventing breast cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancer in American women. When detected early before it has spread, breast cancer has a 99% five-year survival rate.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Learn the symptoms of breast cancer. Listen to your body. Advocate for your health when you have a concern.
Get familiar with the symptoms.
Women often think a lump is the singular sign of breast cancer. But there is more than one type of breast cancer including some that present unique symptoms.
While a lump in the breast, underarm, or around the collarbone is a common symptom, others include change in breast size or shape; nipple discharge; or breast or nipple tenderness or pain.
A less common, but highly aggressive form of breast cancer – inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) – often doesn’t produce a well-defined lump. The primary symptom of IBC is redness and swelling in and around the breast; dimpled skin resembling orange peel also may appear.
It is important to note that men also can get breast cancer. In fact, men who develop breast cancer typically present with more advanced disease than women.
Listen to your body and advocate for yourself.
Because you know best what’s normal for your body, you are your own best health advocate. Beginning in your 20s, women should check their breasts monthly for lumps or unusual changes. Many lumps or symptoms are benign or less serious, but if you notice something, it needs to be checked out by a physician.
Helpful questions to prepare before seeing a physician include what may have caused the symptom or lump; what next steps or tests are needed; and if you will be referred to a physician specializing in breast health.
If you feel yourself downplaying or doubting your symptom, try pretending that you’re advocating for someone close to you. You wouldn’t let them ignore their symptoms or concerns.
Be proactive about your screenings.
Regular breast self-exams are important, but preventative, proactive screenings such as clinical breast exams, mammograms, and MRIs are the most effective in detecting cancer early. Ask your physician how often you should have these screenings depending on your age and risk profile.
COVID-19 vaccines can cause side effects that may impact the interpretation of results from mammograms. Texas Oncology recommends completing upcoming imaging before getting the vaccine or wait six weeks after the second COVID-19 vaccine dose. Patients needing imaging during this time should discuss with their provider ordering the imaging before proceeding.
The pandemic should not be an excuse for putting off needed healthcare. Make it a point to prioritize breast cancer prevention. Listen to your body and take steps to advocate for your long-term health.
Ashwani Agarwal, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Corsicana, 301 Hospital Drive in Corsicana, Texas. For more information, visit TexasOncology.com.