Breast health blind spots

As we head into October, a cycle of predictable events unfolds. The leaves start to turn, the Clemson University football team revs up its National Championship machine and Breast Cancer Awareness Month arrives. Now, I can’t do anything to make nature’s paintings any better. Nor can I do anything about Clemson’s juggernaut – believe me, as a Notre Dame fan, I wish I could! But, as a surgical oncologist whose practice focuses almost exclusively on breast health, I think I have some good advice for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Since my family and I arrived in the Upstate over 16 years ago, I have been impressed by the passion to improve our community’s awareness surrounding breast cancer. It really inspires me every single year.  But every year I also notice three big blind spots that I think we need to shed light on.

Know your risk

First, breast health awareness begins with our primary care providers! These doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants are on the front lines of pretty much every medical issue that we, as patients, have to face. In a lot of ways, breast cancer is no different than heart disease, diabetes and a host of other medical conditions – the first step is to learn about YOUR level of risk for these conditions. And this really needs to begin at your medical home.

Ask your primary doctor where you stand when it comes to breast cancer risk. Because just like every other disease, our goal is to PREVENT breast cancer!  Yep, I said prevent breast cancer.  It really can be done! But without asking your primary doctor about your risk level, we can’t accurately target our prevention interventions to the right women at the right time in the right place. So, go to your medical home and ask about your breast cancer risk profile. If you are at higher than average risk, then the Breast Cancer Prevention Clinic at Prisma Health–Upstate might be a good place to continue the conversation about breast cancer risk and prevention.

Choose a high-quality team for treatment

Second, once diagnosed, many women and their families make a big mistake – they trade speed of treatment for expert care. I understand, both professionally and personally, the impact a new cancer diagnosis can have on patients and families. But I also know that the best way to beat the cancer is by doing the right thing first, not just doing the quickest thing first. God forbid it happens, but if you or a loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer, make sure you get to a team – oncology nurse, lymphedema specialist, genetic counselor, breast surgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, plastic surgeon, breast pathologist and breast X-ray doctor – with expertise and experience in taking care of breast cancer patients. The days of “jack-of-all-trades, master-of none” should be behind us. Everyone deserves a treatment team of experts whose practice is focused on breast cancer.

Keep up the conversation!

The third and final blind spot is that we only seem to talk about this condition, as a community, in October. We need to remind each other that breast cancer is not a seasonal disease. We should continually be encouraging our friends and neighbors to learn about their breast cancer risk and seek out expert, team-based breast cancer care. That, my friends, is a 12-month battle!

Post author Dr. Brian McKinley is a surgical oncologist at Prisma Health’s Breast Health Center.

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