Make the Time for Monthly Self-Exams

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This is the Great Aunt Cass. She’s my mom’s younger sister and one of my favorite people in the world. She was the glamorous aunt who didn’t have kids and jetsetted all over the world when I was a child. She looked a lot like Wonder Woman back then which was definitely an added perk.

She’s still very cool — and sends some rocking Christmas gifts.

Four years ago Cass was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery, chemo, and radiation, and is now celebrating three years in remission. It sounds quick and simple.

It wasn’t.

She lost her hair. She lost her appetite. She almost lost her life.

We are so thankful her cancer was diagnosed early enough and treated successfully. Her life – and ours – was changed forever.

photo source

Breast cancer hit home.

All of a sudden, breast cancer was no longer a disease that “other” people got. It invaded my family. It tried to take one of mine.

The color pink looks a lot different now.

This summer I had my first mammogram. Considering my age (39) and family history, Doctor B figured it was a good time to get a baseline image. He explained that it’s important to have a baseline so that you can track changes over the years. He wanted something to compare it to later.

The mammogram wasn’t as bad as I feared. I’d heard that it would hurt. It did. Not terrible. But, in a take-your-breath-away-vice-grip-sort-of-way. The tech said to hold my breath while she took the picture.

Not a problem.

It was also kinda sweaty. They asked that I not wear deodorant or antiperspirant. It messes with the image? I dunno. Seeing as a total stranger gets up close and personal, expect to sweat.

Other than that. It wasn’t that bad. The best part?

It came back normal.

photo source

Take advantage of early detection tests.

Breast cancer is no longer the “old woman’s disease” that it once was.

(And don’t even think about telling Cass that I breathed the words old woman in a post about her! She’s not old. Even though she doesn’t surf the ‘net.)

But my doc said that years ago “we didn’t see it in young women like we do now.” I was stunned to hear from friends on Facebook, in their late 20s and early 30s, already waging personal battles against breast cancer. It’s important for each of us ladies to be aware of what’s going on in our bodies.

Early detection and treatment can make a huge difference in overall outcomes.

According to the American Cancer Society, here are some guidelines for you to consider:

  • Do monthly self-exams, starting in your 20’s.
  • See your doctor for a clinical breast exam every three years. After 40 years of age, you should have them yearly.
  • Begin getting yearly mammograms at age 40.

Doing these things are not guarantees, but they help. Take advantage of early detection tests — for you — and for that great niece of yours.

Do you do monthly self-exams?

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  1. Oh, I’m so glad for your Aunt Cass. It’s a frightening disease and has claimed so many lives!

    My sister, a nurse researcher, was involved in a project that has found strong links between breast cancer and early miscarriages or abortions. It has something to do with how the breast tissue grows during pregnancy and what happens when this process is interrupted. Especially if it was the first pregnancy.

    In any case, if you’ve had either an early miscarriage or an abortion, you must, must, must do these exams regularly.

    Thanks for bringing up the subject!


    Annie Kate

  2. To help with the sweatiness issue, I schedule my exam for one of the first appointments of the day, that way I can shower and go straight to the exam.

  3. I sure do – my paternal grandmother and all of her sisters were battled breast cancer, so we know it runs in the family. Two years ago, I lost an aunt (not blood related) to breast cancer after a years-long battle. About a month ago, my counsin (it was his mother), lost his mother-in-law to cancer as well, so we know what a nasty disease it can be.

    My father is a retired pathologist who spent his career diagnosing cancer (including my mother’s diagnosis), and he has always hammered into his girls how important it is to do breast exams (and later, mammograms), as well as yearly pap smears – we are faithful to listen to him!

  4. I am 34 years old and while breastfeeding my 5th baby I noticed a lump above my breast. I was going to ignore it, assume it was breastfeeding related but instead I went in and had the OB check it out. Long story short, after a visit to the local breast clinic, it ended up being nothing to worry about, just a lypoma. That said, nothing beats knowing your body and paying attention. My story turned out ok this time. Thank God! But you can rest assured I am not going to be going too long between self-exams! Vigilance here is important. Thanks for the reminder. It could save a life!

  5. Thank you for this reminder.

    My next-door neighbor had a twin sister. Both she and her twin had breast cancer and only one made it.

    Just a few days ago yet another friend (who is in her late 30s/ early 40s) was diagnosed and is having a mastectomy later this week.

    We need to remember to look out for ourselves and check. By checking, we can help us and our doctors to beat it.

    I’m grateful your Aunt Cass made it. And I am thankful for this reminder to me and the rest of your readers.

  6. I just turned 41 & had my first mammogram the same week!! I agree that it wasn’t as painful as I had heard & asked the technician if larger or smaller breasted women had more pain & she explained that it wasn’t the size of the breast but the density of the breast. If someone was “lumpy & bumpy” (her words) – like someone with fibrocystic breast, it would be more painful than someone with “fatty” breasts. She also explained the older we get the less “dense” our breast get…that’s one benefit of getting older I guess!

    My Dr. had explained that it was NOT uncommon to get a call back re: your 1st mammogram reading…well, I got that call & am scheduled to go in on the 27th to have more pictures taken & an ultrasound. The good thing is that it’s being done in a radiologist’s office & will be read right then so I will know that day & not have to wait.

    Even though my Dr. explained that it was very common to need to return for more pictures it’s still unnerving & waiting isn’t much fun. I feel like all I’ve seen recently is breast cancer, the color pink, etc… Although October is Breast Cancer Awareness month I feel like I see it more now that it’s been really brought to the forefront of my mind. I can’t help but think what will happen to my husband & my 3 little girls if I was diagnosed & died? No one wants their children to be without a parent. Will they remember me? Will they be scarred for life? Will they be angry at God for taking their Mom? You can’t help but think these things, but I have to leave it to God & trust in Him that He knows – even if I don’t.

    Don’t put your mammogram off!! Even if you don’t have a family history, make your appointment TODAY!!

    1. Thanks for pointing out the callback thing. That is what the tech told me as well. That it is very common to get called back.

  7. Anyone ever hear of thermography rather than mammography? The docs all recommend the mammo but this is a lot of radiation over time. None in a thermography, all heat. Check into it; can’t hurt. Mine found thyroid problems before the regular medical tests did. It can also locate fine fractures before x-rays.

  8. My grandmother had breast cancer in her thirties. My mother, who is 60, has thankfully not, but continues to encourage my sister and I to be vigilant. We call each other every month to make sure the other has done her exam. Our OB’s have both said they will order ultrasounds when we turn 35. (Mammography is not great with young, dense breast tissue.) You can bet we will hound each other every year to get those done! I encourage everyone to pair up with someone – a sister or friend – and check in each month. It could save a life.

  9. I used to work for a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and will never forget the 23-year-old mother of 2 who had an aggressive form of breast cancer. At the time we were the same age, and never again did I say anyone was “too young.” Personally, I think doctors are too quick to put young girls on birth control pills with estrogen in them to control menstrual cycles. They start on them at 14 or 15 and continue them until late 20s or 30s when they want to have a family. It’s similar to older women who take hormones to help with menopause symptoms; it’s adding something that we don’t necessarily need more of. Just something to think about.

    As for not wearing deodorant, most antiperspirant/deodorant preparations have minerals in them that can show on the mammogram, and they look identical to the calcifications that are suspicious for cancer. Better to be a little sweaty than to have unnecessary additional images!

  10. I had my first mammogram at 39 too, as a baseline. I will have my 22nd mammogram in January. I am 60 and have had them every year. There is no breast cancer in my family so I have tried to convince my gyno to let me have it every 2 years now. She is adamant I have it regularly. All have been fine and it doesn’t hurt much. I’m glad your aunt is fine. Early detection is important. I recommend all you younger women get them.
    God bless, Kathy in Illinois

  11. After my 33 year old friend ended up with breast cancer, I had a lump checked out. It was normal but still very scary at the time. I will be faithful about my mammograms from now on.

    Thanks so much for this post, Fishmama!

  12. gwynn, thanks for the info on thermography. I will ask my OBGYN about it. I have stopped with the mammograms, because I have had LOTS of Xrays (hips, when I was a baby, for dysplasia), mammograms, MRIs (for shoulder injuries, and then one for when I was having migraines, which were caused by a too-strong glasses prescription), plus lots of international travel, which all adds up to way too much radiation!

    You are correct; repeated mammograms can be a causal factor in breast cancer. And since mammograms have been put into standard use, breast cancer rates have soared. Death rates from breast cancer have not improved. We all know women who have literally died from chemo, but whose families were told that the cause of death was breast cancer.

    Why haven’t things improved in the last 50 years?

    While monthly breast self-exams are important, it may be better to do these MORE than monthly, as it is vital to know how your breast tissue changes through your monthly cycle.

  13. March 31, 2009 I had my 3rd annual mammo. The technician asked me to have a seat and not to put my clothes back on, a Dr then walked in and took me for an ultrasound. The quiet was disconcerting to say the least, I was asked to get dressed and then another Dr walked in and asked me to sit down, he told me they found a lump in my right breast and I would need a needle biopsy ASAP. I had one done two days later and three days or so after that my first lumpectomy . 6 rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and I was done or so I thought. It was exactly 2 years and 2 days from my last round of chemotherapy when a new lump was found. It has been removed and I’m sitting at the oncologist office right now waiting. It can not win, I WILL NOT LET IT WIN, MY CHILDREN HAVE ALREADY LOST ONE PARENT THEY DESERVE BETTER.

    Ladies never forget cancer is indiscriminate and ugly, it cares not what your personal plight is and chooses who it wants. Ok enough …. Be happy and live life well. God is good and has a plan. I HOPE Hehe.

    Blessings now and always

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. Keep fighting! (Let us know how we can help.)

    2. I just made an appointment for my first mammogram. Prayers to you and your children sweet lady and thanks for sharing!!!

  14. It is so good to know and be aware! Then you know when things change there.
    I know the feeling! Last year, my aunt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and it was scary to know it invaded our family and loved ones.

  15. So glad your Aunt is doing well and in remission! What a huge blessing!

    My step mom had breast cancer twice, and a double mastectomy. She was a survivor but ended up passing away 14+ years later from complications from all the chemo/radiation. It definitely does a number on your body. But we were beyond grateful to have those precious years with her!

    My mother in law in battling breast cancer right now. It has been a tough fight. She went faithfully for her mammograms but her cancer went undetected and she was diagnosed at stage 4. That was 3 years ago and she continues to fight! We a grateful for each and every day!!

    I have to say that with so many younger women getting breast cancer, I wonder why they are not lowering the age of mammograms? I know that my OBGYN has her patients start at 35 years old. I will need to wait a few months since I just finished nursing our daughter, but then I will go to get my first.

    Thanks for sharing and God bless!

  16. Is there a difference between a clinical breast exam and the one you get during your well woman exam?

    My OB basically does the same thing that I would be doing during a self exam, so should he be doing more?

    You really can never be to young. I’m 26 and a skin cancer survivor. I’ve worn sun screen every day of my life, never smoked or went tanning. Never think that it can’t happen to you. Self exams take just a few minutes a month and those few minutes could save your life.

    1. My understanding is that what the doc does at your well-woman check is considered a clinical exam.

  17. I’m 45 and have three rounds of chemotherapy left. My mom was diagnosed 12 years ago with breast cancer at the age of 54. She is still in remission.

    We never had cancer in our family prior to my mom. We thought hers was simply because of a couple of high-powered estrogen shots she received because of excessive bleeding related to menstrual cycles. Even though I had mammograms and checked myself regularly, I think in the back of my mind I never considered that it “ran in my family.”

    Obviously I was wrong. My mom’s lump was found during a routine mammogram. I found mine myself and immediately called the doctor and got the ball rolling. Self-examination and routine mammograms are both important tools in the fight against breast cancer!

    Also never think that because it isn’t in your lymph nodes that you won’t need chemotherapy. I was triple positive, which means that it included being HER2+. This shows an aggressive status. So although I was stage 2A with a lump at 2.2cm and NO lymph node involvement and had the lump removed with clear margins, for the best chance to help prevent later recurrence chemotherapy was necessary (along with a multitude of other things).

    Thanks for sharing your aunt’s story too.

  18. Self exams are great but don’t forget to get the baseline mammogram. I do my self exams and get an annual exam with an OB GYN. Neither of us were able to detect changes in my left breast. However, they are there. I have to repeat my mammogram(I had to repeat them once already) in December in a 6 month follow up because of calcifications. Hopefully they will be seen as non threatening. However, if they aren’t I’ll be able to get treatment early thanks to the use of a mammogram.

  19. Thanks for the reminder. May I please add do NOT delay in having ALL your annual exams at the OB/GYN. Kept putting mine off because nothing was wrong – or so I thought. Finally went in after a couple abnormal months, only to find myself having major surgery fourteen days later. Two large masses had to be removed and thankfully neither were cancerous.

    I thought I was fine and felt absolutely nothing abnormal. Stop making excuses – GO!

  20. Thanks everyone for all the encouragement to just go…I’m such a procrastinator! I had my annual pap in Sept and still haven’t gone for my mammogram! I’ll call tomorrow!

  21. I have been following your blog for some time now and this is one my favorite posts you have done. I am so happy to hear that your Aunt Cass is in remission and that your exam came back normal. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Wow, thanks Alison. I was worried that people would think I was nagging them. Thanks for your kind words!

  22. Aunt Cass is not on the website right now but we, her Minnesota Family are. Your message is beautiful and we wish to express how grateful we are to have Cass in our lives. Thank you for saying all of the things we feel everyday.