Cheat Sheet

Breast Cancer For Dummies

From Breast Cancer For Dummies by Ronit Elk, Ph.D., Monica Morrow, M.D.

If you're dealing with breast cancer, know that fellow patients and medical professionals can do a deal to ease your journey. This cheat sheet offers advice on when to see a doctor about breast issues; has tips on how to get ready for a mammogram and biopsy; introduces the members of your treatment team; and suggests contact numbers to keep on hand as you undergo treatment.

Is It Breast Cancer? Warning Signs You Shouldn't Ignore

Breast cancer has some obvious and not-so-obvious symptoms that you shouldn't ignore. Pay attention to your breast health so that you can identify changes early on. Schedule an appointment with your doctor right away if you experience any of the following symptoms in one or both breasts:

  • A new firm lump or mass in your breast

  • Your nipple suddenly becomes inverted (goes in) or dimpled

  • Discharge from your breast other than milk that comes out on its own

  • You're being treated for an infection of the breast and it doesn't get any better or any worse after a week or two

Don't panic, but don't delay!

How to Prepare for a Mammogram

Mammograms are an important diagnostic tool in detecting and combating breast cancer. You should schedule regular mammogram screenings, and follow this advice:

  • Find out before your appointment whether your insurance covers the procedure.

  • Go to a facility that's certified by the Food and Drug Administration.

  • Bring the pictures and the doctor's report with you if you've had a mammogram in the past.

  • Wear warm slacks — the machine is cold.

  • Stay calm. Remember, out of 1,000 mammograms, 998-999 are not cancerous. Why worry if you don't have to?

Breast Cancer Treatment Options

If you've been diagnosed with breast cancer, you have many treatment options available depending on a variety of factors. You can discuss the options with your doctor and your loved ones to decide the best course for you.

Common treatments for breast cancer include

  • Surgery: Everyone with breast cancer has some form of surgery. You might undergo one of these procedures:

    Lumpectomy: Removing the cancerous lump and some of the surrounding tissue.

    Mastectomy: Removing the breast tissue.

    Reconstructive surgery: Surgery to rebuild your breast. You decide if and when you want it.

  • Radiation therapy: Radiation involves beaming x-rays or gamma rays at the cancer cells to damage or destroy them.

  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a combination of medications that reaches all the parts of your body, and kills the cancer cells that may remain after surgery and radiation. Its purpose is to prevent a recurrence of the cancer and to increase your chances of survival.

  • Hormone therapy: Hormonal treatments such as tamoxifen are used to both prevent and treat breast cancer.

How to Prepare for a Breast Biopsy Appointment

If your doctor suspects you may have breast cancer or wants to confirm that you don't, you'll probably be scheduled for a biopsy, a procedure in which some breast tissue is extracted and analyzed for cancerous cells.

Keep these helpful hints in mind as you go in for your biopsy appointment:

  • Not all biopsies are the same; some can be done with a needle in the doctor's office while others require a small surgery. Ask your doctor's office which kind you'll be having.

  • If you are having the surgical kind, have a friend bring you in and drive you home again.

  • Don't panic. Remember, being sent for a biopsy does not mean that you have cancer. It's just a more accurate way of checking any suspicious cells to see whether they are malignant (cancerous) or benign (not cancerous). Three-quarters of biopsies done as a result of your doctor feeling a lump in your breast turn out to be not cancerous.

Members of Your Breast Cancer Treatment Team

Breast cancer patients have a whole team of caring and attentive health professionals who are focused on helping you beat the disease. Here's the roster for your breast cancer team:

  • The Doctors

    Primary care doctor: Refers you to breast cancer specialist.

    Pathologist: Looks at your tissue samples to determine whether they're cancerous.

    Radiologist: Determines the extent of your cancer using mammography, ultrasound, and more. May also do a biopsy.

    Medical oncologist: Helps you decide on which drug treatment is best for you. Will be in charge of your medical treatment for cancer.

    Radiation oncologist: Administers your radiation treatment.

    Surgical oncologist: Does biopsy, and operates on you for a lumpectomy or mastectomy.

    Plastic or reconstructive surgeon: Reconstructs your breast.

    Anesthesiologist: Gives you anesthesia (knocks you out — in a good way) during surgery.

  • Other Key Members

    Nurse: Assists in your care before and after treatment.

    Oncology nurse: Coordinates your care and works jointly with other team members to provide you with the most effective care

    Social worker: Helps you emotionally, with problem solving, with insurance, and with other logistics.

    Radiology technologist: Positions you for X-rays and mammograms.

    Physical therapist: Helps your body heal by showing how to move, stretch, and exercise.

Contacts to Keep on Hand during Breast Cancer Treatment

Being treated for breast cancer is an ongoing process with some twists and turns to be expected. Make yourself a call sheet so that you can notify the right people when chemo runs long and you need someone to pick up the kids, for example.

The following list contains suggestions for the numbers you need to carry with you.

  • Partner's work/cell phone

  • Partner's backup

  • Children's school

  • General doctor

  • Medical oncologist

  • Hospital

  • ER

And, you may want to call the toll-free numbers or click the links to visit the Web sites of these organizations:

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