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Why Monthly Breast Self-Exam Should Start at Age 20


Invasive breast cancer will affect one in eight women in their lifetime, but regular screening can reduce the mortality rate by 30 percent or more.

Although mammograms are recommended yearly starting at age 40, Dr. Kelly Harkins, director of breast imaging at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, recommends that all women begin self-breast examinations monthly at the age of 20.

“I’ve seen a lot of patients over the years who have palpated abnormalities on a self-breast exam and most of the time, it’s nothing,” Dr. Harkins said. “It’s benign — a cyst or a benign tumor. But what is most important about the self-exam is that you get to know your breasts.”

Dr. Harkins advises that if you notice something that is not normal for your breasts, such as skin puckering or dimpling, nipple changes or a lump, make sure to see your doctor.

Every woman has different risk factors, making it important to speak to your doctor about when to start your annual mammograms. While the recommended age is 40, if you are at an increased risk, such as a mother or sister diagnosed with breast cancer before menopause, your doctor may recommend earlier screenings.

Screening is the best defense when it comes to prognosis – the earlier the cancer is caught the less chance it has to spread, so it is essential not to delay annual screenings.

“For a patient diagnosed with an early breast cancer that has not spread to the lymph nodes, the survival rate is 99 percent or more,” said Dr. Harkins. “Even if the breast cancer is within the local lymph nodes and it’s treated, the survival rate is 90 percent. This really speaks volumes as to why it’s so important to catch these cancers early.”

If something is found to be suspicious on a mammogram, you may be called back for additional imaging, such as an ultrasound.

“The good news is that most of the time it’s nothing,” said Dr. Harkins. “It might be a benign calcification, or maybe it was benign density. We then would recommend routine follow up.”

For more information on breast screenings at Hartford HealthCare, click here.


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