A fitness tracker on your wrist cheers you to shoot for 10,000 steps today. You select oatmeal over biscuits and sub salads for fries. Your morning regimen may include one or multiple preventative supplements – perhaps an aspirin and some vitamins. Even if none of these actions reflect your current day-to-day schedule, chances are high that you have entertained the thought of doing something proactive in the name of health, especially during this era of the COVID-19 pandemic. Why? Because taking care of yourself just feels good. Nothing is more empowering than knowing that you have done something to honor your body and your health.
One of the most important ways that you can take care of yourself is by making cancer screenings a priority. For women, this means regular screening mammography to look for breast cancer. I can honestly say that virtually none of my patients have ever expected to hear the words, “You have breast cancer.” This diagnosis is a surprise to all, and patients are often quick to say, “I have no family history. How could I get this?”
The answer: Breast cancer is terribly prevalent. A newly diagnosed breast cancer patient once said to me, “When I received this diagnosis, I didn’t realize I was joining a club with so many members.” Not only is breast cancer common, it is on the rise. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide and was, in fact, just recognized in February 2021 as the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer, surpassing lung cancer for the first time ever. There are an estimated 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S., and approximately 44,000 deaths will occur due to breast cancer in 2021. While lifestyle modifications such as avoiding smoking and alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight may decrease your risk of developing breast cancer, these measures are not a guarantee that you will not be affected by this widespread disease.
The good news: Though common, this disease can be cured – not treated, cured – if found early. The 5-year survival rate for women diagnosed with early breast cancer approaches 99%. But what is “early” breast cancer? Early breast cancer is localized to the breast and small in size, and it has not traveled outside the breast to involve lymph nodes or other parts of the body. More importantly, early breast cancer is usually silent: you usually cannot feel it and it does not cause symptoms.
Enter screening mammography, the keystone test for early breast cancer detection. Having a screening mammogram is one of the most powerful actions you can (and should) take, to protect yourself from dying of breast cancer. Numerous clinical studies have shown that regular screening mammography decreases the risk of dying from breast cancer by at least 40%. This is because mammograms identify breast cancers at an earlier, more treatable and oftentimes curable stage. In fact, the life-saving power of early detection afforded by mammography is even stronger if women have their screening mammograms regularly. Compelling new research published this month in the journal Radiology shows that women who irregularly undergo screening mammography have a significantly higher rate of breast cancer deaths compared to women who have regular mammograms. In this study, women that prioritized regular screening mammography saw a 50% reduction in breast cancer deaths, while women who received a mammogram only every so often saw a significantly lesser 28-33% reduction in breast cancer deaths. Women who did not undergo screening mammography at all saw the highest breast cancer death rate in the study. Bottom line: if you are getting a screening mammogram regularly without fail, you are giving yourself the best chance for a breast cancer-free future.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to tune in to our personal health and take an assessment. We all know people who have taken the wheel and resolved to optimize their healthy future. Are you taking control of your health destiny? If so, make sure regular cancer screenings are a part of your master plan. For women, this means regular screening mammography every year. You may not be able to stop breast cancer, but it does not have to stop you.