Early Detection

While reducing your risk is an impactful part of a proactive lifestyle, it’s also important to know how to detect breast and ovarian cancer as early as possible—the sooner it’s detected, the greater the chance of survival.

Plan of Action

Early detection all starts with knowing your body and understanding the signs and symptoms to look out for. By regularly monitoring yourself, you’ll be in a better position to spot any changes or abnormalities early. On top of being Breast and Ovarian Self-Aware, it’s important to understand and practice the appropriate breast and ovarian cancer screening measures for your level of risk, which we’ve detailed in the screening section below.

Your Breasts: Be on the Lookout

Breast Self-Awareness is key when it comes to early detection. Everybody’s breasts are different, so it’s about getting to know the normal look and feel of your breasts, and speaking up if you notice any changes. It also means knowing your family history (and whether it increases your risk), the signs and symptoms of cancer, and how the lifestyle decisions you make in your daily life play a role in increasing or decreasing your risk.

The most common symptom of breast cancer is a lump. Some women have naturally lumpy breasts and soft, mobile lumps that come and go with your period. This can be totally normal, as breast tissue responds to our bodies’ hormones. That’s why some of us feel tenderness or lumpiness in our breasts around our periods. If a lump or change goes away after your period is over, chances are its nothing to worry about.

If you find a lump, don't panic. 80% of lumps found end up not being cancerous.

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What’s Your Normal?

We all have different breasts – different sizes, shapes, and with various types of lumps that may come and go. What’s standard for you may not be your friend’s “normal,” but what’s most important are changes.

Keep tabs on yourself to make sure your breasts are their usual size, shape, and color. Touch your breast tissue from multiple angles with varying pressure to feel both the deep and surface layers, from the interior by your ribs to just below the skin. Don’t forget that your breast tissue extends up your collarbone, around to your armpits, and into your breastbone.

If you notice any of these symptoms that don’t go away after 2-3 weeks, see your doctor:

  • Swelling, soreness or rash

  • Warmth, redness or darkening

  • Change in size or shape

  • Dimpling or puckering of skin

  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on nipple

  • Nipple that becomes flat or inverted

  • Nipple discharge

  • New, persistent pain in one spot

  • Persistent itching

  • Bumps that resemble bug bites

  • A lump, particularly one that feels like a frozen pea

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Ashley

“I'm only 29 and I never thought that I had to worry about breast cancer at this age. I signed up for Bright Pink’s text alerts, and when I got that first text I did a self-exam and found a tiny bump. I felt for it every day and kept thinking that it would go away—after it didn't I called my doctor. Turns out I had a stage 1 cancer in my breast. Bright Pink truly saved my life.”

Your Ovaries: What to Watch For

Unfortunately, it’s much tougher to detect ovarian cancer at an early stage. Most ovarian cancers are not caught early enough because there is no effective test and many of these symptoms can be confused with menstrual or digestive issues.

Two-thirds of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will die from their disease, because it is often detected at a later stage when it has become life threatening. When a symptom persists or worsens, it’s important to see your doctor and ask if it could be your ovaries.

To be Ovarian Self-Aware, you also need to know the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer and what’s normal for your body. When you know what’s normal for you, you’ll be more likely to notice any changes—and speak up should they occur. Symptoms of ovarian cancer are vague and often confused with digestive or menstrual problems, so never be afraid to ask your doctor, “Could it be my ovaries?”

If you notice any of these symptoms that don’t go away within two weeks, see your doctor:

  • Bloating

  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

  • Pelvic or abdominal pain

  • Needing to urinate urgently or often

  • Other symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue

  • Upset stomach or heartburn

  • Back pain

  • Pain during intercourse

  • Constipation

  • Menstrual changes

  • These are symptoms that we as women may feel all the time. But this isn’t about eating too much spicy food or feeling bloated as a result of your period coming. This is about symptoms that are persisting or worsening over 2-3 weeks.

Screening for Women of All Risk Levels

In addition to practicing Breast and Ovarian Self-Awareness, a comprehensive early detection strategy includes ongoing screenings, which vary in frequency depending on which of the three risk categories you are in. No matter which category you’re in, all women should have an annual well-woman exam as part of their comprehensive prevention plan developed with your doctor.

Your well-woman exam should include:

  • Clinical breast and pelvic exam starting at age 20

  • PAP smear, though know that this tests for cervical cancer, not ovarian cancer, and you may only get one every few years

  • Mammogram beginning at age 40—if you have a family history, ten years before the age your youngest relative was diagnosed

  • While these precautions are important for all women, if you’re in the Increased- or High-Risk categories there are further actions you should take when it comes to early detection.

TigerTiger-6358Additional Screening for Women of Increased Risk

In addition to being Breast and Ovarian Self-Aware and practicing risk-reduction strategies, doctors suggest further screening tactics for women of increased risk, particularly starting mammograms earlier.

Mammograms

Mammograms are the most common screening test for breast cancer, and regular screening can help your doctor catch signs of cancer. The test is simply an x-ray of the part of your breast called the soft tissue.

For average-risk women, the general recommendation is to begin getting annual mammograms at age 40. As a woman in the Increased-Risk category, you should talk to your doctor about potentially starting mammograms earlier. If you have a family history of breast cancer, screening should start 10 years before the age at which your youngest relative was diagnosed, though not before the age of 30.

Mammograms are read by radiologists. If available, ask for your scans to be reviewed by a mammogram specialist, a radiologist with a specific focus in this area who is best equipped to give you an accurate interpretation.

3D mammography is newer technology that allows images of your breast tissue to be taken layer by layer and then reconstructed into 3D images that more clearly show abnormalities than a flat, 2D image does—where tissue on top can obscure masses and distortions in tissue beneath it. Some studies have shown a significant increase in the effectiveness of 3D mammography over traditional 2D mammography.

Additional Screening for Women of High Risk

If you have learned that you have a High Risk for breast and ovarian cancer, undergoing supplementary and more frequent screening is especially important. In addition to being Breast and Ovarian Self-Aware, high-risk women should also consider the following:

  • An annual Mammogram and MRI (one alternating with the other, every six months) to check for breast cancer signs and symptoms

  • A semi-annual trans-vaginal ultrasound and CA-125 blood test to check for ovarian cancer signs and symptoms

  • We’ve included more information below; you and your doctor should discuss which options make the most sense for you.

Sarah

“Another year, another yearly breast cancer screening for this high risk little lady. And this year's crop-top gown is right on trend. Thanks to Lindsay Avner and Bright Pink for always reminding me to face my fears and get checked, no matter how scary it may feel.”

Mammograms

Mammograms are the most common screening test for breast cancer, and frequent tests can help your doctor catch any early signs of cancer. The test is simply an x-ray of the part of your breast called the soft tissue.

For average-risk women, the general recommendation is to begin getting annual mammograms at age 40. As a woman in the High-Risk category, you should definitely talk to your doctor about the need to start getting mammograms earlier. If you have a family history of breast cancer, screening should start 10 years before the age your youngest relative was diagnosed, though not before the age of 30.

Mammograms are read by radiologists. If available, ask for your scans to be reviewed by a mammogram specialist, a radiologist with a specific focus in this area who is best equipped to give you an accurate interpretation.

3D mammography is newer technology that allows images of your breast tissue to be taken layer by layer and then reconstructed into 3D images that more clearly show abnormalities than a flat, 2D image does—where tissue on top can obscure masses and distortions in tissue beneath it. Some studies have shown a significant increase in the effectiveness of 3D mammography over traditional 2D mammography.

MRIs

These tests can be especially helpful for young women, as their denser breast tissue makes it harder to see small breast cancers on mammograms. Your doctor might use these tests to back up your mammograms, which studies have shown to be effective.

If you have the option, have your MRI reviewed by a radiologist trained specifically in breast MRI. Some facilities may even have dedicated faculty who are accustomed to doing MRI for Increased- and High-Risk patients. While this is not always readily available, studies show that when these specialists review, the test will have a lower false positive rate.

Trans-Vaginal Ultrasound

To check for signs of ovarian cancer, your doctor can use trans-vaginal ultrasounds. These tests can, in some cases, help detect ovarian cancer earlier.

CA-125

A CA-125 blood test may also help your doctor detect ovarian cancer by determining if the level of CA-125, a protein produced by ovarian cancer cells, has increased. Unfortunately, this test is not always accurate. Some non-cancerous diseases of the ovaries also increase CA-125 levels, and some ovarian cancers may not produce enough CA-125 levels to cause a positive test.

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