“Mom, I think I might have cancer.” For a while it seemed that every conversation I had with my daughter started with those words. She had recently started work at a major cancer research center. Surrounded every day by cancer stories, she began to interpret every ache or pain as potential calamity. Everyone she worked with told her the same thing happened to them at first too. The phenomenon is also common among medical students, except they experience every disease known to science by the time they graduate
All day long our brains are monitoring the feedback from our bodies.
Twinge in toe? Must be those tight shoes.
Itch on left hip? Too minor to consider.
Bump on cheek? Oh, no. Not a pimple right before my big date!
Then October roles around. It’s breast cancer awareness month. From every media outlet we see breast cancer articles. Because it’s not news when a 68 year old woman is diagnosed in the earliest stages with the most common forms of breast cancer, we hear about the youngest patients with the most severe cases of the most unusual types of the disease.
Suddenly our brain is processing all those constant signals differently.
Twinge in breast? Must be breast cancer.
Itch on left nipple? Didn’t I hear about two forms of breast cancer that start with an itch?
Bump on breast? Is this what a breast lump looks like? What if the cancer spreads before I can see a doctor?
Of course, I am exaggerating, but breast cancer awareness month can make us hypersensitive to symptoms that common sense would ordinarily tell us are not dangerous.
Breast cancer awareness month is scary. It’s easy to get carried away with fear like kids in a haunted house. How are we to cope?
First, keep in mind that most of the problems that can go wrong with breasts are not cancer. The skin on our breasts can get pimples and moles. The muscles under our breasts can get sore and hurt. The constantly changing hormones in our bodies can lead to cysts, tenderness and other problems. Before you panic about a breast symptom, ask yourself how you would evaluate that same symptom if it were on your tummy or leg.
Second, use October to learn the facts about breast cancer and its treatment. Too many women still think that all breast lumps are cancer. Too many women do not realize that not all breast cancer starts with a lump. Too many women do not check with their doctors about changes in their breasts because they think that breast cancer is an automatic death sentence they would rather not hear about. With every newspaper, magazine, and television station running articles about breast cancer, you can learn about breast cancer symptoms and the newest treatments. If you already have breast cancer, you will probably hear new information about your treatments or follow-up care that will help you.
Third, do not ignore the valuable reminders breast cancer awareness month provides encouraging you to notice changes in your breasts. Many of the spots I’ve seen this month are still promoting monthly breast self-exams (BSE). This practice is controversial among health professionals because it has not been proven to reduce the mortality rate compared to women who do not use BSE. So whether you do a formal monthly check or whether you just pay particular attention for breast changes when you shower, let October be your reminder that you do need to know your own breasts well enough to know if there is a change.
Fourth, let this month spur you to take action. Take advantage of any health screenings in your community related to Breast Cancer Awareness. Some organizations will be offering free mammograms. Others will have wellness fairs where you can learn tips on maintaining your overall health. If you are old enough to need a mammogram, make that appointment now. If you are younger and you haven’t had a recent health check-ups, schedule yours today. And for goodness sakes, if you have been procrastinating about calling the doctor about that breast change that is worrying you, stop worrying and get it diagnosed.
Yes, there is the danger that breast cancer awareness month will scare some people needlessly. But there is an even bigger danger that with the daily reports about all things breast cancer, that some people will tune them out, just when they need to be paying attention. The scariest thing about October is that some people won’t schedule that doctor’s appointment.
Be proactive about your breast health this month, so that you can enjoy all those scary ghosts and monsters knocking on your door on Halloween.
Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) survivor diagnosed in 1998. She has written about cancer for HealthCentral since 2007. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)© organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at www.ibcsupport.org. Phyllis attends conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. She tweets at @mrsphjohnson.