October Is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and This Year, I'm Making Myself a Promise I'll Actually Keep

October is officially the month of pink, when we celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month and dedicate our time and attention to breast cancer awareness. Except for skin cancers, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, with 12 percent of women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer every year. The American Cancer Society has estimated that before 2014 is over, 40,000 women will have died from the disease. Although death rates from breast cancer have been on the decline since 1989, early detection is key.

For me, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is personal.

I was 13 when breast cancer hit my family. My grammy was in her mid-60s when she was diagnosed. At that age, for me, the word cancer was synonymous with death. I remember my immediate reaction when my parents sat my sister and I down to tell us she was sick: tears, followed by an intense fear. I wasn’t ready to lose my grammy.

Breast cancer runs in my family. I’m reminded of this every time I go to the doctor, and every time my mother asks me if I’ve been diligent in breast self-exams (BSE). But have I been diligent in my breast self-exams? No, I have not.

She was given two options: She could either start chemotherapy immediately or undergo a mastectomy of her left breast. She had watched her brother die of breast cancer, something that only affects one in 1,000 men, after years of chemo. She wanted the cancer out of her body, and chose the mastectomy. Although she knew there was no guarantee that the cancer wouldn’t develop some place else in her body, for her, it was the best option. She didn’t want to be sick every day because of chemo, especially if there was a chance that the chemo wouldn’t win against the cancer.

This past March, my grammy turned 94. She has been cancer-free for the past 20 years. But in those 20 years, both my aunt (her daughter) and one of her sisters were also diagnosed with breast cancer. While my aunt is in remission, my great-aunt is still undergoing chemo treatments.

Breast cancer runs in my family. I’m reminded of this every time I go to the doctor, and every time my mother asks me if I’ve been diligent in breast self-exams (BSE). But have I been diligent in my breast self-exams? No, I have not.

I’m naturally on the neurotic side. I’m high-strung, and although I wouldn’t consider myself a hypochondriac, I would definitely say that I’m squeamish about certain things — including breast exams. The few times I’ve actually been responsible enough to give myself an exam, I’ve felt woozy and, of course, felt something that I was sure was a tumor. I know that a lot of that has to do with the fact that I'm not as acquainted with my breasts as I should be and that that has to change.

Forty percent of breast cancers are diagnosed because women found the lump themselves, or because it was pointed out to them by a partner. But according to research by breast cancer organizations, most women find the BSE process "frustrating" because in many cases, women are not as familiar with their breasts as they should be and feel non-cancerous lumps that may concern or worry them. I know I do.

With breast cancer in my family, it’s hard not to feel afraid. While women getting breast cancer in their 30s is far less common than in women over 50, it still happens. I went to high school with a woman who died from breast cancer at 31, so I know I could very well be next.

Every October, I make a pact with myself to be more proactive in taking care of the health of my breasts. But then October comes and goes, and I haven’t done what I set out to do in the beginning of the month. I verbally kick myself, but I still don’t commit to regular breast self-exams. It’s not about laziness — or even lack of caring — it is an avoidance steeped in neuroses and fear.

But this year, I want that to come to an end. I don’t just owe it to myself to adhere to regular breast self-exams. I owe it to the people who love me, and I owe it to my grammy, a breast cancer survivor.

This year has been a big one for me. I'm not only smack-dab in the middle of my 30s, but I got married and have stepped up to the plate by taking more responsibility for my life and my actions. I'm not the same person I was two years ago or even the same person I was six months ago. It's time to look at my fears and hang-ups about breast self-exams in the face. I will not become a statistic. Instead, I will embark on monthly BSEs, and yes, I will be sticking to that promise this year.

The best time of the month for a woman to examine her breasts is three to five days after her period starts. I figure if I'm religious in setting an alarm on my phone as a reminder on the first day of my period, I won't forget. I'd like to think that because I love my breasts and my life both are pretty great, after all — I will suck it up and do what scares me...until it doesn't scare me anymore.

Image: Airman Magazine/Flickr