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A hands-on approach to breast health

Mammography

I recently turned 45 and my gynecologist gave me a unique gift: a referral for my first ever mammogram.

Why am I even announcing this on a very public platform? Because in most societies anything related to women’s breasts is still taboo, with health issues especially shrouded in secrecy and euphemism.

While I still lived in my native Malaysia, I knew of older family friends and relatives who had kept mum about their conditions and suffered in silence until their untimely – and maybe avoidable – early demise from breast cancer. In some instances, it was treated like “An Affliction That Shall Not Be Named.”

Thankfully, the attitude has by and large changed. Since breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women worldwide, there is an abundance of literature and many awareness programs and campaigns run by national health organizations. Add to that, the Breast Cancer Awareness Month that happens every October.

I’ll be honest though. When my gynecologist suggested the mammogram, I was somewhat taken aback. My first reaction was to ask if this was necessary. It made me anxious about my age and the health risks associated with it – my current lifestyle and whether I was doing enough to be fit and healthy and my life expectancy. Yes, I am aware that it all sounds pretty dramatic, but that’s how I tick when it comes to health-related matters. I doubt I’m alone.

Genetic testing for breast cancer

Even the age when women should start going for mammograms is moot: previously the recommendation was every two years from age 40 onwards. Others say that women with no family history of breast cancer need only start when they’re 50. Even in my own peer group – that includes girlfriends working in healthcare – there are differing opinions and experiences.

Although all of them tend to agree that the science and technology are there to help us detect any abnormalities early, thus outweighing the risks.

I generally try my best to keep abreast (excuse the pun) of the latest studies and opinions regarding early detection and treatment. Like most medical research, mammographies are not free of contention with some underscoring that they are overrated, while others swearing by their efficiency in detecting cancer.

The completely irrational part of me would rather sing “que sera sera” and let whatever will be, be. Better to not know and be happy than to go through the anxiety of medical check-ups, right? But the pragmatic side of me would say: “Prevention is better than cure.”

Whatever the school of thought about cancer prevention and treatment strategies, there’s one thing that everyone agrees on: WE women must be vigilant. And that means literally taking a hands-on approach to our breasts.

Here are some tips: Watch out especially for unusual changes in the skin or shape and look out for discharge. If your breasts don’t look like they usually do, make an appointment with your doctor immediately.

Dr. Edward Sickles MD (R) and Larisa Gurilnik RT look at films of breast x-rays at the UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center August 18, 2005 in San Francisco, California.

From my point of view, cancer involving the breast and reproductive organs strikes at the very core of my identity as a woman. It is also a very personal matter and we all have our own coping strategies and approaches to prevention. But from my own experience, I find it helps to speak to other women to get their views and especially experiences of the yet (and hopefully always) unknown. So, if you’re in that same position as I am in, reach out to a trusted female relative or friend and talk about it. Or speak to a female gynecologist if you’re uncomfortable talking to a male.

It all helps towards making an informed decision for yourself.

I was concerned that a mammogram would be painful. A girlfriend in Singapore who heads the nursing department of one the main hospitals there was very nonchalant over Facebook messenger: “Just take some Ibuprofen before you go. You’ll be fine.”

So after much deliberation (and frankly, dilly dallying) I’ve decided to make that first mammogram appointment after all.

Wish me luck. And I wish you all good health.

 

Author: Brenda Benedict

Editor: Anne Thomas

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Date

30.10.2017 | 16:50

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