Making — and Keeping — Important Dates that Affect Your Health

I don’t hesitate to step up to the plates – the cold, flat, hard ones that press on places I normally protect from injury. During my annual mammogram, a pleasant woman usually apologizes for having to take some extra … er … care to be sure she gets a good picture. I don’t mind at all. After helping a boy I love get ready for kindergarten when his 40-year-old mom was in the hospital for breast cancer treatment, I’m happy to put up with some minor discomfort in exchange for potentially life-saving information.

A couple of years ago, controversial recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force about when to start mammograms (it said 50) and recommended regularity (every two years) caused confusion – and a bit of an uproar – especially for younger women whose breasts may be denser, and therefore harder to screen with mammography. The American Cancer Society continues to recommend starting annual mammograms at age 40 for most women.

New preliminary research presented at the September 2011 Breast Cancer Symposium in San Francisco adds to the controversy over the 2009 recommendations, reinforcing that mammograms and breast self-exams are useful in detecting breast cancer, including in younger women. The report authors reviewed data on almost 6,000 women with an average age of 59 who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. They found two-thirds of tumors were discovered on a mammography and 30 percent by palpation, almost always from a breast self-exam (90 percent) instead of a doctor’s exam (10 percent). In women younger than 50, almost half of the cancers (48 percent) were detected by mammography and 46 percent by feel. (The study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.)

While the health-care community debates when – or if – women should start different screening techniques, and which are most effective, I will continue to use the tools at my disposal to be on guard for a disease that affects one out of eight U.S. women.

Breast cancer is unpredictable. It strikes women without known risk factors, women of all ages and, sometimes, even men. In this issue we share the stories of two Triangle-area women, both diagnosed when they had children to care for at home. These amazing women share how they told their kids, how they kept going, and how they turned a potentially devastating period into as positive an experience as possible. One point that struck me was that even before their diagnoses, both took full responsibility for their own health.

We can’t control all aspects of our health. But in addition to getting screened for diseases such as breast cancer, we also can make healthy lifestyle choices, including what we eat and how much exercise we get. Two articles this month help you make small changes in these areas that can make a difference. Find out why calcium is important for more than your bone health, and how much you need each day. Also get tips to help you set — and meet — realistic fitness goals. One suggestion: Make exercise a priority by scheduling it.

Women are often so busy caring for family, working and helping in the community that we put ourselves last. We can’t do that. Our lives depend on it. To enjoy our children – and future grandchildren – we need to stay as healthy as possible. That means I need to get moving and back in the swing of my fitness routine to improve my chances of fully enjoying the crisp fall air, brilliantly colored leaves and trick-or-treaters who knock on my door for many years to come.

And for those women who dress up as a doctor for Halloween so they can wear a medical facemask as a barrier to germs that may wreak havoc on a chemotherapy-compromised immune system, know we are behind you, even if we don’t know you. Let’s vow to be vigilant in our watch – and fight – against breast cancer.

Crickett Gibbons, Editor, Carolina Parent