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How to detect breast cancer early

Ways to fight cancer before it fights you

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time when the country pulls out their pink ribbons, make donations, run a few miles and posts a chain status to Facebook in recognition of this disease. For those fighting breast cancer and for their loved ones, who can only watch, the battle goes way beyond October.

woman doing breast exam

It’s an everyday struggle that lasts their entire lives. It’s the daily question of whether they're going to live. It’s a young woman who struggles to fathom how to live through the rest of her live without the advice or touch of her mother. It’s a young woman who doesn’t have to fathom it, but has to face it. When someone loses that fight, the immeasurable loss haunts their families forever. The most important element missing from this equation is the period before cancer happens — that’s the time to make a change. Here are three must-do early detection ways find breast cancer before it finds you.

Step 1: Never miss a checkup

"She didn't miss her mammogram by choice," said Romina Schaan, a 21-year-old college student whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011.

A year and a half before the diagnosis, Schaan’s mother went in for her routine mammogram, and it came back entirely clear. There were no lumps, spots or warnings. She was 100 percent cancer-free, and according to her daughter, the perfect image of health. Schaan’s mother didn’t have health insurance when it was time for her next routine checkup, but cancer didn't wait.

"In a year and a half it managed to become stage four," Schaan said.

The cancer had spread to her breast bone, but doctors assured her she would be one of the lucky few to be cured. Despite aggressive treatment and the hopes of her family, however, the cancer spread to her lungs, brain, liver and other bones. Her health deteriorated rapidly and she passed away only weeks after watching her daughter walk down the aisle.

Never miss a checkup with a doctor, whether this be a mammogram or a clinical breast exam -- there is never a valid excuse or reason, and if you think there is, cancer won’t care.

Step 2: Breast self-exam

We’ve all seen the posters for them in the bathroom stalls and doctor's office, but how many of us actually do it?

My mom did, and it was the difference between life and death.

She was taking a shower and while she was rubbing soap on her breasts, her own designed check-up, and she felt something strange -- a firm, small and unmistakable lump. She made the mistake of waiting three months, but with pleas from her family, didn’t wait one second more. She got insurance and after two surgeries, extreme radiation, a strong fight and five years of Tamoxifen, she is, thankfully, alive.

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if she hadn't checked her breasts that day. It’s important to incorporate this into our weekly or at least monthly lives so we are familiar with our breasts and able to detect any changes. Learn the simple steps and make it a part of your life.

Here are the red flags to always be looking for, according to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s website : 

  • Lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area
  • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast
  • Change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
  • Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast
  • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly
  • New pain in one spot that doesn’t go away

Step 3: It’s never too early to start checking

For those who are in their early 20s like me, it’s too early to start breast self-exams or read up on breast cancer developments, right?

Wrong. It’s never too early, especially with people being exposed every day to hormones, radiation and health hazards that other generations never had. We have a cell phone to our ear, hormone-fed everything and computers on our laps to write articles on daily basis. We are all at risk; one in eight women under 45 will be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Once you turn 20, start having a clinical breast exam every three years. Once you turn 40, it should be every year. Also stay informed about the latest breast cancer developments and treatments. Ask if you really need that X-ray or CT scan, for example.

Romina Schaan's mother left behind children, grandchildren and a husband of 35 years. During her mother's treatment, Schaan met many young women with more than breast cancer; they had children, and babies. She doesn't want to share the same fate, especially with a beautiful life ahead with her new husband. Schaan and has already started getting yearly breast exams and aims to stay informed and conscious of her health.

"My family can't leave this in the past -- it's our life now and the glue that held us together is gone," Schaan said. "The difference a few months make cannot be stressed enough. It is life or death."

It’s never too early to start fighting breast cancer -- your mother would agree.

More on breast cancer

Breast cancer: New findings and treatment options
10 Celebrity breast cancer survivors
10 Things we now know about breast cancer (that we didn't know 10 years ago)

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