Study raises questions about breast self-exams

July 15, 2008 9:22:24 PM PDT
A new study is adding some confusion to one of the strongest pieces of advice women are given to help prevent breast cancer -- performing regular self exams to check for lumps and possible tumors.

A Danish research group compared data on thousands of women, some of whom performed regular self exams and others who didn't. Statistically, they found that performing exams did not reduce breast cancer deaths.

"In the back of my mind, I said, 'Yes, you felt something. Go back over it again.' And I took the time, went back over, and I felt the lump," said Margie Cherry, a breast cancer survivor.

It has been nearly a decade since Bay Area cancer survivor Margie Cherry ran her hand over that odd bump during a breast self exam. It was a discovery that saved her breast and possibly her life.

"I had a lumpectomy and I had a good doctor too," said Cherry.

Nonetheless, now researchers in Denmark are challenging the overall effectiveness of breast self-exams. After examining data collected from nearly 400,000 women, doctors at the Nordic Cochrane Center, noted no improvement in death rates in women who performed the exams. They also found those women were twice as likely to undergo unnecessary biopsies.

Still, breast cancer experts like Dr. William Goodson M.D. from the California Pacific Medical Center, say it's important to note, that the statistics were gathered from women overseas, not in the U.S.

"One of the troubles of bringing that into environment like the United States, is that if you found something in those countries, only method you had for deciding whether or not it was cancer, would be to go into the operating room, make a cut in the skin and take the lump or area out," said Dr. Goodson, a cancer surgeon.

In the U.S., the overwhelming number of women who detect an irregularity in their breasts are given a follow up mammogram, to confirm whether the lump is something to be concerned about.

"Even today, the largest proportion of patients with breast cancer actually found the lump themselves. So mammogram found the cancer, but patient finding something amiss is really what trips the process and gets her evaluated," said Dr. Goodson.

And even if the statistics don't show a link between regular self-exams and breast cancer survival rates, he says the earlier breast cancer is detected, the better the chance surgeons can avoid a mastectomy and save the breast.

It's a message Margie Cherry now passes on to other women as a health care counselor in San Francisco.

"As a survivor myself, early detections is one of the best things that can happen to a woman," said Cherry.

The American Cancer Society now suggests women in their early 20's learn the pros and cons of checking themselves, but it no longer recommends monthly self-exams.

Carolyn Johnson's Breast Self Exam Back Story: click here

From American cancer society: click here

From US Dept. of Health and Human Services: click here

From Susan G. Komen for the Cure: click here


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