The Medical Minute: Breast health -- be aware, not afraid

October 07, 2008

By Michelle Farnan

As October approaches, breast cancer awareness ribbons emerge and colorful leaves begin to brighten our tree line. Although fall is the season of change, there are several things that will not change in terms of breast health.

Women over the age of 40 need a screening mammogram every year. Performing a self breast exam and seeing the doctor once a year are also important steps for breast health. Sure, there are reports that say self-exams do not save lives and can unnecessarily cause anxiety if lumps are found. But let's think about this report another way. No one knows your body better than you. Performing self-exams at the same time each month allows you to learn the normal texture of your breasts. Then, if you do feel something abnormal, you can bring it to the attention of your health care professional.

Breast self-exams create the awareness necessary to keep you in charge of your health. Not every woman takes the time to see her doctor and get the recommended screening exams, especially in light of today's health insurance crisis. However, each of us can get to know what is normal for our own bodies and seek professional help when necessary.

Mammograms are still the best method for the early detection of breast cancer. The new digital mammogram uses less radiation than film mammography, and images can be stored and shared with your doctors electronically. Digital mammograms also are significantly better for screening women under age 50 or women of any age who have very dense breasts, according to a National Cancer Institute fact sheet. If you are due for your mammogram and do not have insurance, mammograms may still be available by calling the Healthy Woman program at (800) 215-7494. You are eligible if you are uninsured or underinsured, a U.S. citizen residing in Pennsylvania, under age 65 and meet applicable income guidelines.

It also is important to know who is reading the mammogram. Research shows dedicated breast radiologists at academic medical centers have an increased accuracy rate in interpreting diagnostic mammograms than those at non-academic centers, according to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

So, what’s the take-home message? Life is full of changes and uncertainty, but one thing is certain: the importance of taking charge of your health. Be aware of what is necessary to stay healthy and seek assistance whenever you have a question.

It all sounds simple, but many women do not get their annual mammogram, see a doctor or perform breast self-exams. Celebrate this October by starting a new tradition. Call a friend and schedule your mammogram together. Make it a special day by sharing a fun activity after your mammogram. Be aware, stay healthy and have fun.

For information about digital mammograms or breast health services at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, call (717) 531-5319 or visit

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

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009