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Act now to up odds of being a survivor
Reduce breast cancer risk and up odds of early detection by following these steps

Date published: 10/21/2007

NOT MUCH scares women more than the thought of developing breast cancer. Even though more women will die of a heart attack, it's breast cancer that makes us take pause.

The feeling of powerlessness causes fear, but you don't have to feel completely powerless against breast cancer.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I can think of no better time to start taking steps to decrease breast cancer's fear-provoking power. Follow these seven steps, and you'll be well on your way.

Get a yearly mammogram starting at 40. Recommendations vary slightly on this, but by and large, women should start having yearly mammograms once they've turned 40.

Some women at increased risk for breast cancer should start even earlier and may need to have a breast ultrasound or a breast MRI as well.

A mammogram isn't the most comfortable thing in the world, and some women report experiencing full-blown pain during theirs, but I can guarantee you that it's nothing like the pain that you may experience if treatment is delayed because of a delayed diagnosis.

The mammogram is one of the best tools we have to find this disease early, which is the key to a cure.

Go to the American Cancer Society site (cancer.org) to sign yourself or a friend up for yearly e-mail reminders to get a mammogram.

Do monthly breast self-exams. As with yearly mammograms, recommendations vary about performing monthly breast exams. Some studies have shown them not to be effective. But I have seen women find their own breast cancers when waiting for their next mammogram or doctor's appointment would have led to life-threatening delays. It costs nothing and has no side effects, so why not?

If you have monthly periods, the best time to perform the exams is seven days after your period starts. If you don't have monthly periods, pick a day like the first day of the month, or the day you pay your bills, to do your exam.

If you don't know how to do it, ask your health care provider or check out Web sites like Susan G. Komen for the Cure (komen.org) and cancer.org.

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Mary Washington Hospital has a mobile mammography van as well as two imaging centers where mammograms can be done. Call 540/741-9729 for imaging, or 540/741-2000 for details about the van. Low-income patients who meet eligibility criteria can get free mammograms through the Every Woman's Life program. Call 540/899-4142 to learn more.

For breast cancer patients, a support group meets at the Cancer Center of Virginia. Call 540/786-5274 for details. The hospital's cancer navigator program helps guide patients through diagnosis and treatment. That number is 540/741-1769.