The most effective way to screen for breast cancer is by mammography, along with regular breast exams by your health care provider. But medical organizations don't agree on the recommendation for breast self-exams, which is an option for women starting in their 20s. Doctors should discuss the benefits and limitations of breast self-exams with their patients.
Bianca Kennedy heard them five years ago, and, like most people, her initial emotion was shock, followed by the question, "Am I going to die?"
Kennedy, now 40, was diagnosed with early breast cancer when her then 38-year-old sister was battling the disease for the third time.
"My sister was grossly undertreated the first two times, and I learned from her experience," Kennedy tells WebMD. "When I was diagnosed I didn't agonize about how aggressively to treat my cancer because I had seen what she what she went through."
What Should You Do?
Kennedy ended up having both breasts removed, followed by chemotherapy and breast reconstruction. She now counsels newly diagnosed patients as a volunteer for Y-ME, a 24-hour support hot line staffed entirely by breast cancer survivors.
She knows firsthand the importance of being an involved, educated patient, but she says most people need time to come to terms with their diagnosis.
"It is common for people who have just been diagnosed to be overwhelmed with all the information they are getting and the choices they are being asked to make," she says. "You are bombarded with facts and figures and statistics, and it is really hard to keep a cool head. But the choices you make are critical and they may impact the rest of your life."
So what are the most important things newly diagnosed patients can do to maximize their odds of beating cancer? WebMD posed this question to doctors, patient advocates, and cancer survivors, and some common themes emerged. They included:
Get the Facts
Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that education is critical. That means learning all you can about the specifics of you own cancer and how to best treat it. This is especially important for diseases like breast cancer and lymphoma, where treatments vary greatly.
"I have seen people waste a lot of precious time researching the wrong thing because they didn't really understand their cancer," says Joan Arnim, who manages the patient advocacy program at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. "It is often a good idea to ask your doctor for recommendations about where to get information about your particular cancer."