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5 questions to ask about breast and ovarian cancer during your annual checkup

Lindsay Avner, 33, is the Founder and CEO of Bright Pink, a national nonprofit on a mission to save women's lives from breast and ovarian cancer. Since 2007, she has led the charge to reach millions of young women and transition the nati...

Questions you need to ask about ovarian and breast cancer during your annual well-women's exam

The new year is around the corner but before you say “See you later, 2016,” make sure you see your doctor. According to a recent Zocdoc survey, “80 percent of Americans admit they are delaying or forgoing preventive care. The issue is worse for Millennials, with 9 in 10 (93 percent) not scheduling doctor visits.”

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It’s so important that you pay your doctor a visit at least once a year because things change, whether it’s our bodies or new medical information. This is the time to work with a great partner – your doctor or health practitioner – to answer any and all of the questions you may have. Not to mention, the well-woman’s exam is covered by all insurances due to the Affordable Care Act. Every well-woman’s exam should include:

  • A clinical breast exam: A physical exam of the breast that is thorough, covers all the breast tissue, and typically lasts several minutes. If your doctor offers this exam, say yes – and if your doctor doesn’t bring it up, make sure you do!
  • A pelvic exam: Your provider will actually feel your ovaries to see if there is anything abnormal. During your pelvic exam, you may also receive a pap smear. It’s important to note that a pap smear checks for cervical cancer – not ovarian cancer.

At Bright Pink, we’re asked about mammograms all the time. We get you, it’s confusing! We align with the majority of cancer organizations and medical professional societies that recommend women begin mammograms at age 40. For a lot of women that recommendation works, but if you have a first-degree relative who was diagnosed with breast cancer, you should talk to your provider about scheduling a mammogram when you are 10 years younger than the age at which your relative was diagnosed. For example, if your mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at 45, you should talk with your doctor about screening at 35.

During your next well-woman’s exam, use these questions to guide a quality conversation: 

What are the risk factors for breast and ovarian cancer? How do these factors affect me now and in the future?

There are 52 million women in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 45, and all are at some risk for breast and ovarian cancer. The average woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is one in eight, making it the leading cancer diagnosis in the U.S. (the risk is higher if you have a strong family history of cancer, a genetic predisposition, or a history of abnormal breast biopsy). The average woman’s lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is 1 in 75, and it is the deadliest gynecologic disease – two thirds of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will die as a result.

What’s our plan? What prevention and screening plan do you recommend for me based on my personal risk?

Assess your risk for breast and ovarian cancer and bring your results to your next doctor’s appointment to help guide the conversation as you develop the best proactive strategy for you.

What lifestyle changes could I make to reduce my risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer?

The choices you make today can impact your risk for these diseases in the future. Your doctor should provide you with customized strategies that fit you and your situation (quitting smoking, exercising and maintaining a healthy BMI, limiting alcohol intake, taking oral contraceptives, etc.). There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to reducing your personal risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

More: 5 misconceptions about breast and ovarian cancer you need to stop believing

Should I see any specialists to manage my risk, such as a genetic counselor? If so, do you have any recommendations?

Ensure you feel properly informed and empowered to make a thoughtful, supported decision when it comes to breast and ovarian cancer genetic testing. Today, 90 percent of individuals who carry a BRCA gene mutation (just one of the known cancer-causing genes) in the U.S. don’t know it. Many women who should consider genetic testing never even start the process! (Want to learn more? Check out ExploreYourGenetics.org.)

What breast and ovarian cancer symptoms should I be on the lookout for between visits?

Are you an advocate for your own breast and ovarian health yet? Make sure you are familiar with the symptoms of breast cancer (nipple discharge, scaly sore or rash, and lumps, to name a few) and ovarian cancer (prolonged bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, and menstrual changes, among several others). Put your awareness into action and leave your well-woman’s exam well-informed and with a plan!

It’s super important to find a medical professional you trust. She or he should listen to your questions during your exam, pay attention to your concerns, and provide clear recommendations you can follow. Remember if something doesn’t feel right, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. You’re worth it!

More: How you can raise money for breast cancer just by shopping

Lindsay Avner, is the Founder and CEO of Bright Pink, a national nonprofit on a mission to save women's lives from breast and ovarian cancer. Since 2007, she has led the charge to reach millions of young women and transition the national conversation from one focused on breast and ovarian cancer awareness to one centered on tangible, life-saving action.

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