The Medical Minute: The power of pink

October 14, 2009

By Michelle Farnan

Breast Cancer Awareness month, beautiful fall leaves and football season -- what could they possibly have in common? When you stop and think about it, there are a couple things. First, vibrant colors come to mind. Red, orange and yellow leaves tell many of us that October is here. Pretty pink ribbons appear in stores and on television shows, and some even show up at football games. NFL players wore pink cleats and gloves during their first games in October. Whether you're a football fan or not, it's a good time of year to remind the women in your life to get a mammogram.

Mammograms are a quick, relatively painless test recommended annually for all women over 40 years old. Yes, some women say they are uncomfortable. A few things a woman can do to make a mammogram more comfortable include reducing caffeine for at least a week prior to the mammogram, scheduling the mammogram appointment a week after the start of her menstrual cycle, and making sure the imaging center she goes to uses mammopads. These soft, foam-like pads used on the equipment feel more comfortable than cold, hard mammogram plates.

Another similarity among these three October rites is the symbolic progression of change over time. Leaves turn from green to a warmer color such as red or yellow, then fall from the trees. Those of us who live in temperate climates recognize the glory of fall and look forward to its vibrant beauty year after year. Many of us, men and women alike, are excited about the start of the football season. We settle in each week to watch our favorite teams, and excitement grows as records are broken and playoffs come near. Similarly, as the end of September approaches, we see pink candy wrappers, hats, shoes and many symbolic pink ribbons. They remind us of loved ones fighting breast cancer and are hoped to encourage women to schedule annual mammograms and perform monthly breast self-exams. These two actions, in addition to seeing the doctor for a clinical breast exam, are the best women can do to maintain good breast health.

If a mass or calcifications are found on a mammogram, the patient will be called back for extra mammogram pictures and a breast ultrasound. In most cases, nothing further has to be done. If a biopsy is recommended, it can be done by a breast radiologist with no need for general anesthesia or a lengthy recovery. The biopsy procedure is done using ultrasound or mammogram, called a stereotactic biopsy. The doctor numbs the skin and removes a few string-like pieces of tissue; the patient leaves the breast center with only a small bandage and an ice pack. Yes, it is an anxious time, but if a woman follows the guidelines for breast screening, and if breast cancer is diagnosed early, it is curable.

It's true that one difference among these three October rituals is the fact that we usually look forward to fall and football, but rarely do we all consistently embrace October as the time to talk about breast cancer, its early detection, treatment and importance of screening. Start now: Schedule a mammogram, do a breast self-exam and talk to your friends about the power of pink.

Michelle Farnan is a registered nurse at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and Penn State Hershey Breast Center.

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Last Updated October 23, 2009