This week, I had my 50,000-mile checkup — not for my car, for me.

The older we get, the more specialists and tests we need to schedule. I have been poked, prodded and photographed from every angle and had a very nice young lady give me a mammogram. Although slightly uncomfortable, it was over in a few minutes and the results were on my computer, waiting for me when I returned a few hours later.

Thank goodness, it was fine. I even got a complimentary pink goodie bag.

I was slightly remiss in getting my yearly check up, so it was a tad overdue. I really felt a whole lot better getting it done and seeing the results.

Most women know to do regular self-exams, and that if they feel anything out of the ordinary, they should contact their doctor immediately. Breast cancer, if caught early, has a high rate of survival, but we must be diligent and schedule that yearly test.

A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. Doctors use a standard system called the breast imaging reporting and data system (BI-RADS) to describe what they find on a mammogram. While screening mammograms are administered annually to detect breast cancer in women who have no apparent symptoms, diagnostic mammograms are used after suspicious results appear on that initial screening, or after some signs of breast cancer alert the physician to check the tissue.

There are numerous risk factors linked to breast cancer, and anyone with a history of it in their family should be even more aware of them. Your physician will always ask about your family medical history and of course, if breast cancer has been diagnosed in yours, it is imperative you disclose that.

Excess alcohol consumption, smoking and too much extra weight or obesity are just a few things that can increase risk. Women who have one alcoholic drink a day have a small — about 7 to 10% — increase in risk compared with non-drinkers, while women who have two to three drinks a day have about a 20% higher risk.

Being overweight or obese after menopause increases breast cancer risk. Before menopause, your ovaries make most of your estrogen, and fat tissue makes only a small part of the total amount. After the ovaries stop making estrogen, most of a woman’s estrogen comes from fat tissue. Having more fat tissue after menopause can raise estrogen levels and increase your chance of getting breast cancer.

Higher insulin levels have been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer. The complexity of this has many variables, including when the weight is gained. The risk of breast cancer after menopause is higher for women who gained weight as an adult, but the risk before menopause is actually lower in women who are obese. Doctors cannot pinpoint the reasoning on this.

Other things that are related include women who take hormone therapy or estrogen therapy, have implants or use birth control. These numbers are much lower on the risk-factor scale, but when visiting your doctor, you should mention any and all of these.

Again, these are merely risk factors and in no way mean you will get or have cancer.

Although there are things that can be done to lower the exposure to breast cancer, some things are beyond our control. The risk for breast cancer increases with age, and most are diagnosed after age 50. Along with the genetic issues, women who started menstruating before age 12 and started menopause after age 55 are exposed to hormones longer, raising their risk of getting breast cancer.

Dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue. Women with dense breasts are more likely to get breast cancer, and those with a personal history may be more likely to have it return.

Women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), which was given to some pregnant women in the U.S. between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage, have a higher risk. Women whose mothers took DES while pregnant with them are also at risk. Again, diligence, awareness, self-examination and frequent checkups are imperative.

Not all lumps found are malignant; in fact, most are not. However, this is no reason to ignore one. I had two noncancerous lumps removed and was grateful for the peace of mind in knowing they were benign.

Men, as well as women, are susceptible to breast cancer. Men who feel any kind of difference or changes in their breast area should not assume it is only a female problem. Early detection has saved the lives of several of my friends, and it can save yours, too.

Marla Luckhardt is a Brentwood resident who works with several local senior care and advocacy groups. Reach her at marla2054@aol.com.

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