Bloomington / Normal, IL

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Three Steps to Catching a Killer Early


Early Detection of Breast Cancer Increases Survival Rates

By Linda Hankemeier

October is full of scary stuff. Halloween, ghosts and goblins, and tricks and treats all get our pulse racing with some good, clean fun. However, this month also brings focus to another topic that is truly frightening to women: breast cancer.

Look around the room you’re in. According to national statistics, 1 out of every 8 women you see right now will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Breast cancer is an equal opportunity offender, impacting women of all races, ages, and walks of life. Women can manage their risks by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly. But it’s also important for women everywhere to take three easy steps to monitoring their breast health: monthly breast self-exams, annual clinical breast exams, and annual mammograms.

A woman can be her own best health advocate. “Mammograms, regular clinical breast exams, and self-breast awareness are still believed to be the best combination for catching breast cancer early, which increases a woman’s chance of survival,” states Dr. Shermian Woodhouse, medical director of the Community Cancer Center, Normal. “Survival rates of breast cancer have improved more than 30 percent over the last few decades, and early detection has played a significant role in helping women live longer.”

Step 1: Monthly Breast Self-Exams
Most doctors recommend women perform a breast self-exam monthly. In particular, women should be aware of any unusual changes in their breast or underarms, such as:

  • A lump, hard knot, or thickening inside the breast or underarm area
  • Swelling, warmth, redness, or darkening of the breast
  • Change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
  • Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast
  • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly
  • New pain in one spot that does not go away

“It’s important for women to be familiar with their own breast tissue, so they can detect any changes early and discuss them with their doctor,” shares Jolene Clifford, breast health navigator at the Community Cancer Center. Jolene teaches a class called MammaCare, which teaches women specific personal exam methods so they can be confident they’re performing a thorough and proficient breast self-exam.

The next MammaCare class is offered Tuesday, Oct. 21, from 6:00-7:30 p.m. While the class is free to the community, registration is required as seating is limited. Women can register by calling Jolene at 309-451-2216.

Step 2:  Annual Clinical Breast Exam

Whether a woman notices changes in her breast or not, she should also have a clinical breast exam and mammogram once a year.

Health care providers can provide a clinical breast exam, examining a woman’s breast and underarm area for any lumps or changes. Most doctors complete this as a part of a regular physical exam for women. If a woman’s doctor doesn’t automatically do this, she can also ask for this exam. Women who are 40 or older should try to have their mammograms around the time of their annual clinical breast exam as these two exams together are more accurate than either exam separately. Women ages 20-39 can have their clinical breast exam every three years.

Step 3: Annual Mammograms
Mammography is still considered the best breast cancer screening tool available today. This tool uses X-rays to capture images of a woman’s breast which can be reviewed by doctors for abnormalities, and also stored and reviewed year after year to look at changes over time. Even small abnormalities which can’t yet be felt can be picked up on mammograms. Women age 40 and older should have a mammogram once a year.

The most current statistics available indicate that only 51 percent of women in our community age 40 and older had a screening mammogram in 2013, with the percentage being even lower in minority populations.

Pink Partners, an area wide initiative of the Community Cancer Center, focuses on increasing the percentage of women in the local population who have screening mammograms. Pink Partners encourages all women to invite their moms and family members, friends, and neighbors to partner with them in committing to complete an annual mammogram. For more information about Pink Partners, visit

It can be scary to talk about the realities of breast cancer. But by taking three easy steps, women can stay informed of their breast health and keep the worry caused by undetected health issues at bay.

For more information on self-breast exams and breast health, visit with your doctor or go to Komen for the Cure’s website at To schedule a mammogram or clinical breast exam, contact your doctor. If you do not have a doctor, you can also contact the Community Cancer Center at 309-451-8500 for assistance with scheduling your mammogram appointment. Financial assistance is available for women who have no insurance coverage or cannot meet their deductible, as well as help with other services needed for a mammogram to be completed.

Photo credit: amtitus/iStock