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Breast Self Exams Not Always Helpful

New research that followed nearly 400,000 women found that doing vigilant breast self exams and immediately reporting any lumps to a doctor may not be in a woman's best interests. Why not? Well. The women who actually do monthly self exams in the thorough way recommended by modern medicine "rarely find cancer early enough to save lives", however they do end up finding more lumps, and reporting them to more doctors, and getting more biopsies, mammograms, and medical attention--whether they need it or not.

Most of the women in the study were Russian and Chinese, and the study included training for some in how to do self exams, while others were told not to worry about it. During the course of the study, 587 women died of breast cancer. Of them 292 had been performing self-exams, and 295 had not. The difference was not statistically significant.

The women who did the self-exams did, however, have twice as many biopsies, and lots of time spent quaking in fear that they might have cancer. Debbie Saslow of the American Cancer Society said to Time that "women who don't want to do breast self-exams shouldn't feel guilty about it". Phew. Thank goodness I don't have to feel guilty anymore.

Actually, this is very interesting to me in light of my own history, and those of many women I know. A few years back I was getting my annual exam including a pap, and the lady doing the exam found lumps in my breasts. Now I am familiar enough with my own breasts to know that they are lumpy in general, but especially lumpy when I've been drinking coffee. I told her this, but she thought that one lump was large enough that it needed to be checked, so she told me to make an appointment with a radiologist at the hospital, and get a mammogram and whatever else he recommended. She helped me out by getting me into the Wellwoman Healthcheck program, which is federal funding for women to get mammograms. I was a little young to get into the program, but I had a lump, so they made an exception.

So I went. I let them smash and ultrasound my breasts, every six months for the next two years. Each time the naming and rating of my lump changed slightly, always for the better. After the fourth 6 month exam, the radiologist pronounced me cancer free, and told me I didn't have to keep coming back for breast smashings.

I came out of the experience cynical. Perhaps I went into it cynical. But my thought was this: I knew my breasts were normal, but I got funneled through a medical system that benefitted the radiology office which was tapping into Uncle Sam's deep pockets, supposedly on my behalf. The Wellwoman healthcheck program supported the existing medical system more than it helped me. If I had had cancer, that is where the Wellwoman healthcheck program would have left me on my own. What a crock, to be given a diagnosis of something life threatening, but not help in saving your life?

Today I learned that a friend of mine is currently going through a breast cancer scare. She has calcium nodules in her breasts after nursing her second child. And another girlfriend just came through a scare and has been declared healthy after all. I personally find the system frightening instead of reassuring.

Cynicism aside, it is true that with early diagnosis of breast cancer, the prognosis is MUCH better. But the system is wacked. My opinion that my breasts were normal was not considered reliable, whereas 2 years of unnecessary testing was respected and funded by the government. The best I can say of the experience is that it caused me to do a bunch of research about mammograms, and frankly, the science doesn't really support doing them all the time either, though the radiologist would have my head on a platter for saying so.

The one preventative test for women that I really do believe in is the pap smear, though it is also possible to have false alarms and unnecessary disturbances from that as well. Cervical cancer is the #1 cancer killer of women worldwide, but it is the #3 cancer killer in the US, because so many cases get caught early. Naturopathic medicine actually has some very simple and practical ways of treating women who show precancerous changes.....so if you get a positive pap, you don't have to get funneled through the system if you don't want to be.

http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080824/HEALTH/21911/-1/health
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/08/22/health/webmd/main4373242.shtml
http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/25945659.html?location_refer=Health%20+%20Wellness
http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/lifestyle/chi-breast-check-half-0722jul22,0,4710766.story

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