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Cancer Center

Jolene Clifford, breast health navigator at the Community Cancer Center, Normal, uses a MammaCare breast model to explain how she teaches women to do breast self-exams. (The Pantagraph/Lori Ann Cook-Neisler)

NORMAL -- Women can save their lives by becoming more familiar with their breasts.

Breast self-exams are an important tool in early detection of breast cancer, which affects one in eight women.

Even though women themselves find most breast lumps, many women do not perform a monthly breast self-exam, as recommended by breast health professionals.

"It's not uncommon for women to realize change in their breasts," said Dr. Shermian Woodhouse, medical director and radiation oncologist at the Community Cancer Center in Normal.

"A woman needs to be aware of what a normal breast is and needs to recognize changes that are significant to her," said Woodhouse, adding the earlier breast cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat.

"We know the cure rate for early breast cancer is 90 percent," said Dr. Kathy Widerborg, a Bloomington-Normal general surgeon with a special interest in breast health.

"Women need to get over their fear of touching and examining their bodies," said Woodhouse.

Breast self-exam is part of a breast health program that also includes yearly mammograms and clinical breast exams, said Jolene Clifford, a registered nurse and the cancer center's breast health navigator.

Women should start monthly breast self-exams at age 20. They need to get used to how their breasts feel so they know when something has changed, Clifford and Widerborg said.

For example, most breasts have some normal lumpiness, called normal nodularity. That is especially prevalent before the menstrual period begins when female hormones cause the number of breast cells and the amount of fluid in the breasts to increase. A woman who has not examined her breasts before may become unduly alarmed when she detects normal nodular breast tissue.

Women should check their breasts a week or two after their menstrual period begins, Widerborg said. Women who are no longer menstruating and pregnant women should select the same day each month. The exam should take about 20 minutes, Clifford said.

Women need to check all of their breast tissue. Look in the mirror for changes in the nipple, in vein patterns, in skin appearance and in breast shape, Widerborg said.

When examining the breast, Clifford recommends the MammaCare method that calls for using the flat pads of your three middle fingers to check the breast for lumps.

Lie down and roll on your left side to examine your right breast. Using your left hand, begin the exam under your arm, making small circles. Continue an up-and-down pattern until you reach your nipple.

Next, roll onto your back and use the same technique to exam your nipple. Then examine the remaining breast tissue. Finally, examine your lymph nodes by making a row of circles above and below your collar bone on each side.

If you detect any change -- including a lump -- that is not a normal hormonal change, contact your health care provider for further evaluation.

"If you're examining your breast once a month and feel a lump, that can give you a good jump on treatment," Widerborg said.

If you feel a suspicious lump and a subsequent mammogram doesn't show anything unusual, remember that mammograms don't detect everything, Widerborg said. Ask your doctor about a fine needle aspiration, in which cells are extracted and examined to find out for sure whether the lump is cancer, she advised.

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