by Dr. Amanda Camposagrado
Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which occurs every October, shines a light on women’s health. As women, we tend to put the needs of others first. Remember to prioritize yourself and your well-being. As a mother, daughter, wife, community member and physician, I too need this reminder.
With that in mind, it’s so important to advocate for ourselves and our health. You can start by both looking after your mental health and being mindful of any unexplained physical changes — as well as scheduling preventive exams and screenings, including, but not limited to, breast cancer testing.
Preventive care and screenings could save your life
Preventive health screenings can help women stay healthy and detect problems early, at the time when they are most treatable. The Centers for Disease Control reports that breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings prevent deaths. For example, almost 98% of women diagnosed with breast cancer at the earliest stage live for five years or more, compared to about 31% of those diagnosed at the most advanced stage. Yet recent studies indicate that nearly half of all American women skipped a preventive health service in the last year, and that utilization of women’s preventive health services declined by up to 30% during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Women’s wellness is unique
Women face gender-specific challenges around health and mental health. For instance, we have higher rates of certain diseases such as autoimmune disorders, strokes, osteoporosis, depression and anxiety. Heart disease is the top cause of death in women, yet it has historically been underrecognized.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an ideal time for women, age 40 and up, to remember to get an annual mammogram. If you have a family history of breast, ovarian, tubal or peritoneal cancer, you should also consider a BRCA risk assessment and genetic counseling, and/or genetic testing for the “BReast CAncer” (BRCA) gene mutation, an early risk marker of these cancers. For women earlier in life, in their 20s and 30s, it is most important to be aware of your breast health and let your doctor know if you spot any changes.
Your age or family history will determine which breast cancer screening is right for you:
- Clinical breast exam: A hand-led examination by a doctor or nurse during your visit
- Mammogram: An X-ray image of the breast
- Breast MRI: A clearer picture of the breast tissue using magnets and radio waves, often in combination with a mammogram to screen women at high risk for breast cancer
- Breast self-awareness: Familiarity with how your breasts look and feel regularly, so you notice any symptoms or changes
Keep up with your exams and screenings
Schedule and don’t miss your annual check-up. One great tip is to give yourself a “birthday gift” each year and schedule your yearly exam as the gift of health. Set yourself up for success by creating a reminder in your calendar.
At this appointment, depending on your age and risk factors, your provider will discuss important preventive screenings and tests with you, as well as how often they are needed. A good reference point is this chart from the Women’s Preventive Services Initiative, which outlines the screenings women need throughout the years.
Pay attention to changes in your physical and mental health
Being in tune with your body is also central to preventive health care. Contact your health care provider if you notice major changes in your health such as:
- Unexplained fatigue or weight changes
- A lump or area of thickening under your skin
- Blood in your stool or changes in bowel habits
- Persistent cough or difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing or hoarseness
- Persistent unexplained fevers or night sweats
- Unexplained bleeding or bruising
- Persistent abdominal pain or feeling full easily
- New changes in moles (or moles that are irregular or nonhealing)
Take care of yourself day-to-day
In addition to routine medical screenings and exams, you can take care of your health in your everyday life in many ways:
- Get regular physical activity (at least 30 minutes per day) to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and osteoporosis.
- Eat a healthy diet filled with whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. Modify your diet accordingly if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or are trying to lose weight.
- Get adequate sleep.
- Know your numbers: blood pressure, body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol levels.
Keeping stress levels low and balancing mental health are also critical to staying healthy. Mindfulness, yoga and meditation can help, as well as not overextending yourself. For women, who often take on too much to manage, the most powerful word in our vocabulary is “no.”
If you are suffering from mental health problems, treat them like you would with any other physical health issue – such as high cholesterol or diabetes – and make an action plan with your provider.
While it is not always easy to speak openly about your health, I encourage you to advocate for yourself in and out of the doctor’s office. You are your own best advocate for a healthy future.