As we age, many of us start to notice various changes to our bodies. However, not all of these changes warrant a reason for concern. In women, normal changes may occur to the breast depending on what phase in life she may be experiencing. Most of these changes are not cancerous; however, early detection and prevention of breast cancer should be a health priority for women of every stage in life. According to the National Cancer Institute, most breast changes with age are caused by a woman’s shift in hormone levels and they are considered a normal part of aging.
In young women of child-bearing age breast changes most commonly affect the denser and less fatty breast tissue. Changes in tissue with these characteristics are considered glandular. Breasts may become denser with oral contraceptive use or other forms of birth control, such as the Depo-Provera injection. During and prior to a woman’s menstrual cycle she may experience breast lumpiness, tenderness, and pain. Lumps can occur within the breast tissue due to excess caffeine intake and extra fluid in the breasts. These symptoms should subside by the end of a woman’s cycle and are considered normal. Any lump that does not terminate itself should be examined by a healthcare professional.
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding experience breast changes of a different nature. Breast lumps are not uncommon during pregnancy due to milk-producing glands increasing in number and enlarging. However, if a pregnant woman has a palpable lump that is of particular concern, breast cancer should be ruled out. An infection of the breast known as mastitis can occur with breastfeeding when the milk duct becomes clogged. Antibiotic therapy is needed to reduce signs and symptoms associated with the infection such as warmth to the breast, lumps, and breast tenderness.
Women approaching menopause may notice breast changes as their periods become less frequent. Breasts may become tenderer, denser, and lumpier with the shift of hormone levels prior to menopause. Women who experience any nipple discharge during or after menopause are advised to see their healthcare provider due to its association with cancer in some incidences. With menopause, women will notice that their breasts are less dense and have more fatty tissue. Some women will no longer notice lumps or pain in their breasts. The replacement of dense breast tissue with fatty tissue allows a more thorough mammogram reading, which makes it easier for radiologists and doctors to detect small breast changes or early signs of breast cancer.
It is vitally important for a woman to be conscious of the changes within her breast in order to assist in the prevention or early detection of breast cancer.
A woman needs to be knowledgeable as to how her breasts normally appear and feel and be able to distinguish normal changes between abnormal changes. Self-breast exams are recommended for all women over the age of 20 and the vertical strip method is endorsed by the NC Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention Program (BCCCP). It is recommended that women get clinical breast exams by a healthcare provider every 1-2 years to monitor for breast changes. Mammograms are recommended for women starting at age 40 annually or at an earlier age if a family history of breast cancer is known. (Reference: (2005). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, & National Cancer Institute: Understanding Breast Changes, A Health Guide for Women.)
The Sampson County Health Department offers the Breast & Cervical Cancer Control Program – BCCCP – that offers free examinations, mammograms and Pap testing for women that meet certain eligibility guidelines. Women ages 50-64 can qualify for free exams, Pap testing and mammograms; women ages 40-64 can qualify for free exams and Pap testing. To qualify BCCCP services, a woman must be in the target age range, have no or limited insurance coverage and meet financial eligibility requirements. For example a single woman can make $2394.00 per month and qualify for the program. A household of two, such as a husband and wife, can have a monthly income of $3231.00 per month and the woman can qualify for BCCCP. The BCCCP screening includes a physical exam, patient education on self-breast examination, Pap testing and a referral for a mammogram.
The Sampson County Health Department, in collaboration with the Breast & Cervical Cancer Control Program Advisory Board, United Way and South River Electric Membership Coop, sponsors the Annual Breast Cancer Awareness Rally each October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This year will be the 15th Annual Rally and there have been some changes for this year’s Rally. The Rally will begin as usual at the Sampson County Courthouse steps at 9:30am on Saturday, Oct. 12. We will then change to our new route and walk down McKoy Street to the new location at Sampson Center Gymnasium (old Sampson High School), 808 Barden St. where the rally will be held. Although this is a new location from years past, another successful rally is expected. Speakers, information booths, door prizes and free food will be offered.
For more information about the BCCCP Program, program eligibility or the 15th Annual Breast Cancer Rally, contact Laura Kunzman, RN, BCCCP and WiseWoman Coordinator at the Sampson County Health Department at 910-592-1131, ext. 4214.