News | Published October 3, 2012 | Written by Cheri Woll, RN, BS, CCM, oncology nurse navigator

Detecting breast cancer early

A woman in the United States has a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer at some point in her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. The two most important risk factors for breast cancer are being a woman and growing older. While you can't change these risk factors, you can help reduce your chances of getting breast cancer by doing regular physical activity, keeping a healthy weight and limiting the amount of alcohol you drink.

If breast cancer develops, early detection is key to improving your chances of successful treatment. There are three steps you can take to help find breast cancer early:

Mammogram - It is recommended by the National Cancer Institute that women age 40 or older receive a mammogram every one to two years. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms starting at age 40 and continuing for as long as a woman is in good health; however, women who have a family history of breast cancer should talk to their physician about whether they should be tested at an earlier age. No woman should go without a mammogram due to being uninsured. There are resources available, such as the HealthyWoman Program, to help pay for mammograms.

Breast exam - A breast exam by your doctor or nurse should be part of a health exam about every three years for women in their 20s and 30s and every year for women 40 and older.

Breast self-awareness - Each woman's breasts are different in shape and appearance. In order to notice any changes in your breast, you must know how your breasts normally look and feel. Report any of the following changes to your doctor or nurse immediately:

  • A lump, hard knot or thickening
  • Change in size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • A rash or scaly or red skin of the nipple or breast
  • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly
  • New pain that does not go away

A breast self-exam is an option for women starting in their 20s. It's recommended that you perform a breast self-exam each month. To help you remember, put a reminder on your calendar each month. Also, it's recommended that you examine your breasts one week after the end of your period, because your breasts aren't usually tender or swollen then. You can find the steps to perform a breast self-exam in many places, including the websites of American Cancer Society or on Mount Nittany Health. But again, the most important thing is to be familiar with your breasts, and immediately report any changes to your physician.

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, Mount Nittany Health offers comprehensive cancer services to provide patients with both the medical and emotional support they need at every step, from breast cancer diagnosis to treatment to survivorship. The Lance and Ellen Shaner Cancer Pavilion, which is slated to open in the fall of 2012, will provide state-of-the-art cancer care for community members, allowing them access to the best cancer care closer to home.

Additionally, the Mount Nittany Medical Center Breast Cancer Support Group is offered the first Monday of each month (or the second Monday in the event of a holiday) to help patients newly diagnosed, recovering and survivors of breast cancer. For more information on breast cancer and the cancer care at Mount Nittany Health, visit