During the month of October, breast health is the name of the game. This national health observance is a great opportunity to learn how to take steps to protect ourselves from breast cancer.

Still, staying healthy is a lifelong effort. That’s why we sat down with Angell Jones, MD, a general surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital, to discuss steps toward breast health that all women can take. 

1. What are the signs of breast cancer?

Some signs include nipple discharge, a lump, and changes in skin color and texture. Breast pain is usually not a sign of breast cancer. Still, if you have breast pain, you should talk to your doctor.

It’s important to do screenings when you reach age 40. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you should begin screenings sooner than age 40.

2. What is the definition of family history?

You have a family history of breast cancer if your first degree relative has had breast cancer. This means your mother, sister, or daughter.

3. What are some of the known causes of breast cancer?

Cancer is usually not caused by one thing. Cancer is a genetic mistake in the cell that causes the cell to continuously divide. That damage to the cell could be caused by different things, like pollution, toxins from smoking, and other injuries.

4. What is the connection between breastfeeding and breast health?

It has been proven that breastfeeding protects women from breast cancer. Statistically, we know that white women breastfeed more often than black women. Breastfeeding is an easy way that black women can protect themselves from breast cancer, and also give their babies the best nutrition available. Not everybody can breastfeed; sometimes it’s difficult. But I encourage all mothers to breastfeed if they can.

5. How can women prepare for their first mammogram?

It’s good to know what to expect. You may want to ask someone who’s had one before. The technician will compress your breast and it will be uncomfortable, but he or she wants to make sure the imaging is accurate. If you’ve had mammograms in the past, take Tylenol half an hour before if that’s OK with your doctor. Bring someone with you; make it a fun day.

6. Why are mammograms important?

If you know early enough, breast cancer is very curable. First stage breast cancer has a 95 to 98 percent cure rate. When breast cancer is found in later stages, it’s more difficult to cure. This is why yearly screenings are so important.

7. Who should be doing self-exams?

I encourage all of my patients to examine their breasts. Like any part of your body, you need to make sure your breasts are healthy and that there are no abnormal growths.

8. What should a self-exam consist of?

I don’t emphasize a certain technique because if women forget how to do it, they won’t do it. So I just tell them to examine their breasts once a month. Any type of self-exam is better than none at all. When you examine your breasts, you’re looking for changes. Do this once a month so you can notice differences in the texture, shape, size and color of your breasts.