By Holly Russel, Regular ContributorOctober 15, 2015
image via sgugenetics.pbworks.com
By now you probably know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month – it’s the time of year when every product in stores turns pink and the leaves turn orange outside.
Most of us know someone who has battled the disease, and many even support breast cancer charities during the month of October.
But Breast Cancer Awareness month has been around for so long now that it’s easy to forget its central message: to be proactive about your health.
While women under 40 are not typically affected by breast cancer, it’s still important to establish good habits when it comes to breast health. In addition to regular self-exams at home, here are some of the most crucial to-do’s when it comes to your boobs:
Know your family history.
When I was a child, I remember visiting my aunt in the hospital when she was being treated for breast cancer. She survived, and other than being immensely grateful, I never really gave it a second thought. My cousin (her daughter) was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in my 20s. I sent her cards, emails, and love, and after she beat the disease, I went back to not thinking a whole lot about it.
Then last year, when I got a new doctor, she began asking me about my family history of breast cancer. And while I knew that my two relatives had the disease, I really had no other information than that. I didn’t know at what age they were diagnosed. I didn’t know the stage of their cancer when they were diagnosed or really all that much about how they came to discover they had cancer or what their treatment was.
I come from a family that doesn’t talk about tough stuff, and if you do, too, you’re going to have to speak up.
Ask about your family’s health history and get specific. The information you learn can help inform your doctors about the best screening plan for you – which can turn out to be lifesaving if you catch something early.
Investigate gene testing.
If you have a family history, and you’re the type of person who believes knowledge is power, ask your doctor about your access to BRCA gene testing.
From The Mayo Clinic:
The BRCA gene test is a blood test that uses DNA analysis to identify mutations in either one of the two breast cancer susceptibility genes — BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women who have inherited mutations in these genes face a much higher risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer compared with the general population. The BRCA gene test is offered only to people who are likely to have an inherited mutation, based on personal or family history, or who have specific types of breast cancer.
The BRCA test gained some fame after Angelina Jolie went public with her experience, but one of the main things people were talking about at the time was that the cost of the test is prohibitive. It can be. But it also can (and should) be covered by your insurance if your doctor determines you are at a higher than average risk.
I took the test a year ago, then received a $4,000 bill in the mail. My insurance had denied the benefit. After freaking out on the phone with my doctor, the pharma company’s billing department, and my insurance company, I was given the option to appeal the decision (all I had to do was sign a form authorizing the pharma company to fight with the insurance company). I went that route and won. In the end, I paid about $300 out of pocket for the test.
It can be a huge bureaucratic hassle, but it’s still worth it to talk to your doctor and get tested if you can.
Knowing your risk of developing cancer can empower you to make important decisions about your health in the long run.
Thinking about your likelihood of getting cancer can be uncomfortable, confusing, and terrifying, but it is a must-do. Following your doctor’s recommendations despite the fear and discomfort is even more critical.
About a month ago, my doctor ordered a mammogram after I reported some suspicious tissue in my left breast. I didn’t want to bring it up, but I did. The fact that she ordered a diagnostic mammogram the same day was scary, but I went. The process itself was a mystery to me, and according to people on the Internet it was either no big deal or the worst, most painful thing ever. But I walked in the door and took care of business (it’s weird but not painful if you have any threshold for discomfort, for the record).
Hiding your head in the sand is not an option when it comes to your health – especially if you have elevated risk factors like I do. When it gets scary or overwhelming, reach out for support, but never, never ignore something because you’re afraid.
I’m lucky enough that I am 100% healthy, and the peace of mind I feel for having done my due diligence is priceless. No matter how young you are, get in the habit of being an advocate for your own health now – it will make you healthier (and more badass!) in the future.
Have you had a mammogram or other form of testing for breast cancer? How did you feel before and after? What steps do you take to check on your health? Tell us below!
Holly Russel has a BA in Journalism from New York University. She’s a Senior Marketing Copywriter for a pet health company and counts dogs among her favorite things on the planet – along with tacos, books, social media, and the City of New York. When she makes it out from behind the computer screen, Holly spends her time practicing yoga, kayaking, and indoor cycling. She lives and writes in Wilmington, NC.
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