Are You Making These Breast Health Mistakes?

Don’t make these breast health mistakes that put you at greater risk for breast cancer.

By Melissa Schorr

Better Breast Health

As the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, I ought to know better. But for the life of me, I never remember to do a monthly breast self-exam, forcing me to confess at yet another annual checkup that, no, I haven’t been monitoring myself regularly, and yes, I know I should. And then, of course, I forget about it all over again. Luckily, it turns out that as blunders go, mine is not the worst. Doing a monthly self-exam is advisable, but because I get regular yearly checkups, I’m covered, according to the American Cancer Society. Several common missteps, however, can be more costly to your health. Whether you’re trying to catch something suspicious as early as possible or remain in remission, these medical mistakes are ones you can’t afford to make.

Mistake: Not Acting Your Age

You may look and feel younger than you are, but there’s no denying the ultimate truth: Age is the most significant risk factor for developing breast cancer. The chance of being diagnosed when you’re under 40 is truly a long shot: one in 209. But as you move into your 40s and 50s, that number spikes to one in 24 (that’s about four percent) who will be diagnosed with breast cancer before they reach 60. Those aren’t odds you want to play. Take your chronological age seriously and, when you hit 40, be religious about getting annual mammograms and clinical exams. The American Cancer Society and the American College of Radiology, among others, recommend that women begin regular mammogram screening at 40. And while the American College of Physicians advises doctors to avoid false positives and overinvasive testing by weighing each patient’s individual risk, our experts call this bad advice. Says Daniel B. Kopans, MD, professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, "The analysts who have suggested that screening has no benefit until age 50 are wrong. The evidence clearly shows the death rate goes down when screening begins at the age of 40."

Mistake: Putting Off Your Annual Mammogram

The percentage of women getting a mammogram slipped from 70 percent to 66 percent from 2000 to 2005, according to research from the National Cancer Institute. "No one likes having a mammogram," Kopans concedes. "But, since 1990, the death rate from breast cancer has decreased by 25 percent, and mammography screening is mostly the reason." Schedule mammograms exactly a year apart. Even a few months’ lag can give an aggressive cancer the time to thrive. If your doctor doesn’t send out reminders, jot the appointment down or schedule it on your mother’s birthday or another date that you’ll remember.

Mistake: Not Demanding an MRI

A breast MRI can detect cancers much earlier than a mammogram, especially in dense breasts, because an injected dye is used to track abnormal blood flow to and from tumors. Together with a mammogram, it’s a powerful screening tool. The American Cancer Society recommends that MRIs be used in women with a strong family history or diagnosed genetic mutation. Some studies also support the use of MRI to check the other breast in someone just diagnosed with cancer. "Women need to query their physician, ‘There are new standards of care, so why would I not have this done?’" says Christy A. Russell, MD, an oncologist at the breast center at the University of Southern California Norris Cancer Hospital. Make sure your doctor refers you to a center that is equipped to follow up any abnormal results with an MRI-guided biopsy — only half currently are.

Mistake: Losing Track of Your Records

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