The month of October has been designated Breast Cancer Awareness month. I have been very vocal and open about my personal experience with cancer and how it has impacted me both physically and emotionally. I will be managing this disease for a long time and I have found it easier to be transparent with people about how the side effects of treatment impact my daily functioning and why being productive at The JamLab has been so integral to my healing process. I have also written about how music helps me get through treatment whether it is by listening to albums I love, having friends play for me in my backyard or motivating myself with the reward of going to see a concert.
In the years leading up to my diagnosis, I was under the impression that one needed certain risk factors to get breast cancer. I didn’t appreciate that over 85% of breast cancers are not related to family history. I also didn’t know about early detection and screening. Once I began to find out more about what we could do to educate people and advocate for better access to screening across the world, I found my voice and began my advocacy work here in Canada. I have found a community of strong voices championing change, some who have been at it for decades and encourage all of you to speak out for people impacted by this disease.
1. Early Detection is Key- I cannot emphasize this enough. Unfortunately, here in Canada and other places around the world, health guidelines changed around ten years ago and women were discouraged from getting annual mammograms unless they had high” risk factors” before the age of 50. As previously mentioned, 85% of people with breast cancer do not have family histories which is often what people erroneously think puts them at highest risk.
We have also learned that women under the age of 50 are diagnosed with more aggressive breast cancers than others. The newest research demonstrates that ALL women should be starting mammograms annually once they turn 40 and in some cases younger women with genetic or herediary risks, should start even younger.
2. Know Your Density- What is density? Breast density refers to the fibrous and glandular tissue compared with the amount of fatty tissue. It has nothing to do with breast size, like some people mistakenly think. If you have dense breasts, mammograms will have a hard time detecting cancerous cells because it is like finding snow on white paper. Always ask for your breast density after each mammogram. In some provinces in Canada, this information will be mailed to you. If you have C or D category breasts, you should be talking to your care practitioners about supplementary screenings, like ultrasounds.
3. Be Your Own Advocate- Know your own body. Look for changes to your breasts. If something doesn’t look or feel right, speak to your primary care physician or take yourself to a rapid screening centre. Do not let anyone dismiss you.If that happens, find someone who will listen. There are always people who will listen.
4. Do Not Be Afraid- Women are often frightened to have mammograms because they are worried it will be painful. Most mammograms are not painful at all but for a small minority, they can be uncomfortable. This can be avoided by taking some Tylenol or Advil before your test with your physician's approval.
Some people are also concerned that they might get a “false positive” leading to unnecessary anxiety. There is no such thing as a false positive from a mammogram. A small percentage of people are called back for further screening because the radiologist wants to take another look or might want a biopsy to be more accurate. If this is the case, stressful as that might be, consider yourself fortunate that you are being followed and looked after. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
Please share this information with everyone you can and ask them to do the same. Breast cancer will directly impact 1 in 8 women. It does not discriminate. It does not care about your sex, race, age or socio-economic status. It will touch someone you love. But with early screening, we can prevent unnecessary deaths and suffering in many cases. Let’s make October a genuine Breast Cancer Awareness month and get more women to schedule their mammograms,find out their breast density and advocate for themselves and others.