October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Every year, the healthcare industry works to educate people about the importance of early detection of this terrible disease.
Except for skin cancers, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, with around 330,000 new diagnoses expected in 2018. It’s also the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths, with around 12 percent of diagnoses being fatal. Although typically considered a women’s cancer, breast cancer also strikes men, but at about 1 percent of the rate as it affects women. As with every cancer, early diagnosis significantly increases survival rates.
What Is Breast Cancer?
All cancers are the result of out-of-control cell growth (what causes that growth is what researchers are still trying to figure out). These cells may form a tumor, but they’re only considered cancerous (malignant) if they have the ability to spread to another part of the body.
Most of the abnormal growths, or lumps, found in breast tissue are benign (noncancerous). However, some of these may increase the woman’s breast cancer risk. Any abnormal growth discovered through routine breast exams or mammograms should be tested to determine whether it’s benign or malignant.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer?
A new lump or growth is the most common sign of breast cancer. However, the key word there is new, as breast tissue normally feels denser in some areas. As with skin cancer, knowing what’s “normal” for your breasts is a vital component of recognizing when something is not normal. Of course, self-exams don’t take the place of screening tests such as mammograms and clinical exams.
A cancerous lump may be painful, but typically they are painless, feel hard, and have an irregular shape. However, malignant tumors may also feel soft, rounded, and tender. That’s why it’s important to tell your doctor about any new growth you discover during a self-exam.
Other signs of breast cancer include:
- Nipple discharge that isn’t breast milk
- Pain in the breast or nipple
- Retraction (turning inward) of the nipple
- Skin dimpling that may resemble an orange peel
- Swelling of the breast, either whole or in part
- Swollen lymph nodes around the collar bone or under the arm (may indicate breast cancer that spread)
- The skin of breast may feel irritated or become thick, red, or scaly
If you notice any of these symptoms, tell your doctor right away so you can determine the cause. Your provider will likely perform a clinical exam and schedule a mammogram.
How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?
Many of us have outdated concepts of cancer; the disease is now highly treatable. And, when detected early, most cancer treatments have excellent success rates. That’s why regular preventive screenings are so important.
The two most common screenings (besides self-exams) are clinical breast exams and mammograms. Unfortunately, clinical and self-exams have not been proven to detect breast cancer when the disease is in its earliest stage. For that, providers rely on my advanced diagnostics, starting with the mammogram.
How Often Should You Get a Mammogram?
The American Cancer Society recommends the following screening guidelines for women who are at average risk for breast cancer:
- Aged 40 to 44: Optional mammogram screening yearly
- Aged 45 to 54: Mammogram recommended yearly
- Aged 55 and older: May choose between yearly or every other year mammograms
You are considered average risk for breast cancer if you:
- Have never had breast cancer
- Do not have a strong family history of breast cancer
- Do not have the genetic mutation known as the BRCA gene
- Did not have chest radiation therapy before age 30
It is important to note that mammograms do not discover all cancers. However, they often detect changes in breast tissues years before the patient would have noticed physical changes.
Although women often complain about the mammogram (with good reason – it is not a comfortable test), the reality is that mammograms help save lives. Women who have regular mammograms are less likely to require aggressive treatments, such as a mastectomy or chemotherapy. They also have a higher survival rate because their cancers are discovered earlier.
Screening Recommendations for Women at High Risk of Breast Cancer
You are considered high risk for breast cancer if your lifetime risk is greater than 20 percent (lifetime risk for the average woman is around 12 percent). Typically, this means that one of the following applies to you:
- Genetic testing reveals you have the BRAC1 or BRAC2 gene mutation
- A first-degree relative has the BRAC1 or BRAC2 gene mutation, even if you have not had genetic testing
- You underwent radiation therapy to the chest between the ages of 10 and 30
- You or a first-degree relative were diagnosed with Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome, Cowden syndrome, or Li-Fraumeni syndrome
First-degree relatives are defined as your parents, siblings, and offspring. If you meet any of the above criteria, the American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms coupled with an MRI, beginning at age 30. Interestingly, a personal or family history of breast cancer is not considered cause for these more aggressive screening guidelines.
What Breast Cancer Screenings Does Medicare Cover?
Medicare covers annual mammograms for women who have Part B and are over the age of 40. Your costs for a screening mammogram are zero, assuming your provider accepts assignment. For a diagnostic mammogram, the Part B deductible applies, as does your 20 percent co-insurance cost. In addition, Medicare covers a yearly gynecological exam that includes a clinical breast exam.
If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, you may have additional coverage. Check with your plan for details.
Do you have questions about your Medicare plan options or coverage? Our licensed agents are available to answer any questions you have and walk you through your Medicare plan options. Just call us toll-free at 844-655-4347.
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