Breast Cancer Self-Examination: 'Do it Enough to Know What's Normal'

Dr. Wendy Marshall, a breast expert for Provena Healing Arts Pavilion in New Lenox, gave women the low down on breast cancer detection.

How do you talk about breast health and keep the topic light? Dr. Wendy Marshall, a breast expert at Provena Healing Arts Pavilion, made a serious topic seem more like a conversation between friends.

At an Oct. 16 presentation at the Provena Healing Arts Pavilion in New Lenox, a crowded room full of women laughed and learned among other things the importance of self-breast examinations and what to look for.

The primary message of the two-hour long presentation, which included testimonies from breast cancer survivors, was early detection by way of self-examination, annual checkups and mammograms for women over 40 years old. 

Good breast health means regular self-examinations to determine your own body's unique features.

"Do it enough to know what's normal for you. Anything that's different, get it checked out," she said.

The body changes consistently over a life-time, said Marshall. What's normal during puberty is an entirely different thing than what's typical for a post-menopausal woman. "Lumps are there. They're very common," she stressed. But keep in mind that anything that feels or looks out of the normal is a red flag.

If a lump is detected, Marshall said, take a moment to determine its properties. "What size is it? Is it rubbery, gritty, firm or hard? Is there pain?

"Any lump, if it doesn't go away in a month, it needs to be checked out."  

The variables are many, she added. A painful sensation is not necessarily a sign of cancer. Tenderness is common leading up to menstruation. Pain has numerous contributing factors, and hormonal changes are among the chief reasons. "Pain in and of itself is rarely a bad sign."

Marshall stressed that a discharge of any kind should be checked out immediately; however, it's not necessarily a sign of cancer either.  Most often those differences are due to circumstances such as infections, irritations or estrogen influences that can be treated at the doctor's office, said Marshall.

The last thing to do if symptom crops up is to ignore it, she said.

"Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women," according to Marshall. Last year, 193,000 women in the United States were diagnosed with breast cancer, and that's being conservative."  

Unlike Illinois, some state reporting regulations are not as strict. She estimates the occurrence of breast cancer is underreported by at least 10 percent nationwide.

The primary contributor for a cancer diagnosis, according to Marshall, is aging. "Getting older is absolutely the biggest reason that you'll get breast cancer. 95 percent of (breast) cancer" cases are due to "prolonged estrogen stimulus."

However, breast cancer can occur at any age. "I had an 8-year-old with breast cancer," she said.   

How do you win the battle of breast cancer?

  • Self-examination
  • Annual check-ups for a proper breast examination
  • A mammogram for women over 40
  • Fast action if something feels or looks different
  • Healthy living, including diet, exercise and limited consumption of alcohol and caffeine.  

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