The year following my mom’s breast cancer diagnosis was overwhelming to say the least. First and foremost, my family’s energy was directed toward making sure my mom received the proper care and treatment tailored to her diagnosis. Then, once we knew that she was in good hands and cancer-free following a bilateral mastectomy, my thoughts turned to, “What does this mean for me?”
My mom is one of seven sisters, and one of them was already unfortunately undergoing treatment for her own breast cancer diagnosis. Being from a large family of women who have experience with a breast cancer journey, I felt lucky I had many people to turn to as I navigated this new variable in my own health. Throughout my experience with Northwestern Medicine, I’ve learned some valuable lessons that I hope will be helpful for anyone who also wants to be proactive about their own breast health.
1. Discuss with your healthcare provider
First and foremost, discuss any concerns or changes in your health history with your primary healthcare provider. If you don’t have a primary care provider (PCP), this is your sign to get one! I was very fortunate to have an established relationship with my PCP, who got me in very quickly after my mom’s diagnosis. She encouraged me to stay off the internet and to follow what my personal providers and my mom’s providers were encouraging me to do. Dr. Google can be a very scary place. When you’re established with a healthcare provider, they can advise you on any new health symptoms or variables, so you don’t need to navigate the journey with only internet research.
2. Know your family history
As mentioned previously, my mom and aunt simultaneously had breast cancer, so it was a common topic of conversation among my family members. Because of this, I knew my family’s cancer history from the past three generations, and while this may be a little unique, it’s important to have these conversations. It’s crucial to know what trends exist in your family so your healthcare providers know how to appropriately screen you. Not every breast cancer is genetic, but there can still be trends within a family, which are important to be aware of. Knowing your family history will help your healthcare provider determine your risk for breast cancer… which takes us perfectly into the next tip.
3. Know your risk
Hearing about your personal risk for breast cancer can be SCARY. I was given an estimated likelihood of getting breast cancer myself, and while it was anxiety-provoking, that risk existed either way. However, knowing my risk helped me understand what I needed to do to potentially lower my risk, and more importantly, receive the care and screenings to hopefully catch a diagnosis as early as possible. While it’s not always preventable, it is treatable, and early diagnosis is key. So knowing your risk is the perfect example of “knowledge is power.”
4. Follow the recommendations and schedule regular follow-ups
Breast cancer is highly prevalent; in fact, one in eight women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime. With a prevalence this high, very clear research exists for follow-ups and screenings. While it can feel silly to frequently follow up with a provider when nothing is wrong, it’s important to follow your provider’s recommendation on follow-up and screening timelines. Even if they are only performing a breast exam and checking in, it helps establish a consistent relationship with your provider, should you ever have concerns or changes in your health history.
Additionally, so many resources exist that your doctor may recommend, such as high-risk breast clinics, genetic testing, or participation in research studies. And given that monetary support for breast cancer research is abundant, research is consistently developing. Regular follow-ups with your healthcare provider can ensure that you are staying up to date on the current recommendations.
5. Get to know your breasts
Get in the habit of performing regular breast exams. I was instructed to perform these while standing and while lying down, with my arm at my side and with my arm overhead. Getting to know your breasts will help you notice when something is different. You should be looking for lumps, swelling, dimpling, pain, irritation, discharge, or changes in shape. If you do find something, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is cause for concern, it just means that you should reach out to your healthcare provider (not Dr. Google!).
6. Don’t be afraid to speak up
When you find something that concerns or worries you, reach out to your healthcare provider. There is no concern too big or small when it comes to your health. Many healthcare facilities now have online portals where you can reach your providers without sitting on hold for hours. Additionally, providers are able to respond at their convenience, so you don’t need to feel as if you’re a bother to them. I have had to have two sets of imaging due to concerning lumps, and while it was nerve-wracking, I was encouraged by my providers that I did the right thing.
7. Do what helps put your mind at ease
While it can be daunting to know that there are few things you can do to lower your risk of receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, I have also been encouraged to do what helps put my mind at ease. So, while there is no definitive research, I switched to natural deodorant, I have tried to swap some of my existing beauty products for “cleaner” options, and I make attempts to limit soy in my diet. Each of these is a personal choice, and you should feel empowered to do what works best for you.
While this does not replace individualized medical advice, I hope that it helps guide you to find the right support and resources to be proactive about your breast health.