Brown Bag Lunch focuses on women’s health, breast cancer awareness

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In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Women of K-State’s biweekly Brown Bag Lunch series gathered to discuss women’s health issues on Wednesday. The meeting emphasized issues that concern women the most, like breast cancer risk, prevention and screening.

Dr. Suzanne Bennett, Manhattan OB/GYN, started the afternoon by providing basic information regarding annual exams. According to her, the recommendations have changed.

“We like to start around age 19 or when a girl becomes sexually active in order to screen for HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases,” Bennett said. “Fortunately, we don’t need to take Pap smears until a woman becomes sexually active because she can’t contract cervical cancer without having sex.”

Each exam entails height and weight checks, as well as pelvic, skin and abdominal exams used to screen for vaginal and uterine cancer. Though there are more than 250 different strains of HPV, treatment is much less aggressive today than it once was, according to Bennett. Instead of removing every suspicious lesion, doctors typically only remove moderate to severe ones and take biopsies in milder situations as two-thirds of these lesions will eventually go into remission on their own.

Bennett also acknowledged the recent Gardasil vaccination. She said it protects against the four most common strains of HPV and recommended girls get the vaccine between the ages of 9 and 26, before their first sexual contact.

Because these illnesses are so serious, Bennett stressed the fact that women should be able to talk to their doctors without embarrassment. They need to hear answers to their questions not just from a friend or neighbor, but directly from a professional. She encouraged her patients to bring a list of questions along to appointments and bring up any concerns about unexplained pain or bleeding.

“Annual exams need to be scheduled months in advance, but if you are having symptoms like persistent pelvic pain, you should be able to see a doctor within a week,” said Bennett.

Radiologist Tom Place said he believed in the life saving power of mammography.

“There’s a lot of junk out there on the Internet about the controversy of mammograms, but the truth of the matter is that they decrease mortality rates,” Place said.

A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast that uses very low radiation energy to take pictures of the tissue after the breast has been flattened to about 3 centimeters. Because the breast is mostly composed of fatty tissue, it doesn’t take much to produce a picture that doctors can search for any abnormalities, such as cysts, calcifications and masses.

Some women worry that even the small amount of radiation can be dangerous, but Place said the amount of radiation your body absorbs in one mammogram is less than you’d absorb riding on an airplane for half an hour.

Place said breast cancer is the No. 3 killer of all women, behind cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. One in every six women will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year and about 30,000 American women die from it. As a result, it is usually recommended that women start getting mammograms at the age of 30.

“About 7 percent of women who come in for mammography will get a call back about an abnormality,” Place said. “That means in 10 years, a woman is likely to get at least one call back.”

Fortunately, Place said, most of the time the abnormality turns out to be fine, due to factors like breast density that can cause the image to appear cloudy or as if tissues are overlapping. The younger a woman is, the greater of the density of her breasts, making it hard to read the image.

Place also addressed women’s questions regarding breast MRIs in comparison with traditional mammography.

“MRIs are extremely sensitive to any abnormalities, although it’s a good defense for women with high breast cancer risk, it can easily lead to unnecessary alarm,” Place said.

Factors like alcohol abuse, excess weight and sedentary life style designate “high risk,” according to Place. Women are also more likely to be diagnosed if they have at least two first-degree relatives, such as a mother or sister, who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Studies have also found that race can play an important role, according to Place. Although as a whole Caucasian women are more likely to be diagnosed, African-American women are more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age. These higher risk individuals are encouraged to undergo more frequent screenings and often seek genetic counseling for advice.

Victoria Fort, intern at Lafene Health Center, concluded the afternoon by reminding attendees to take advantage of the services available at the Women’s Clinic. Students and faculty can receive breast exams, HPV vaccinations and contact their triage nurse with any questions they may have regarding whether or not an appointment is necessary.

“Having the Women’s Clinic at Lafene is great because it allows students and faculty to get the kind of care they need at a much lower cost than if they were to go else where in the community,” Fort said. “And it’s so convenient to have a lab for testing and a pharmacy there as well.”

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