October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it is important to be aware that whatever age we are, we should all get into the habit of regularly checking our own breasts.
Even with official breast check programs in place, which many countries now have, the fact remains that many breast tumours are first spotted by women themselves. This may be because the woman is too young to have started screening, or may have reached an age past the screening criteria. It may also be that the breast cancer developed in between mammograms.
The reality is, though, that if breast cancer is found early, it is easier to treat and has a better chance of being cured.
Breast changes to look and feel for
Being breast aware simply means getting to know how your own breasts normally look and feel. If you notice a change that isn’t normal for you, visit your GP without delay.
Keep in mind that nine out of ten breast lumps are benign (non-cancerous) but it is still important to visit your GP to be sure. Again, remember that the earlier breast cancer is found, the better the outcome.
Step by step guide for examining your breasts
Step 1: Begin by looking at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips.
Here's what you should look for:
- Breasts that are their usual size, shape, and colour
- Breasts that are evenly shaped without visible distortion or swelling
If you see any of the following changes, bring them to your doctor's attention:
- Dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin
- A nipple that has changed position or an inverted nipple (pushed inward instead of sticking out)
- Redness, soreness, rash, or swelling
Step 2: Now, raise your arms and look for the same changes.
Step 3: While you're at the mirror, look for any signs of fluid coming out of one or both nipples (this could be a watery, milky, or yellow fluid or blood).
Step 4: Next, feel your breasts while lying down, using your right hand to feel your left breast and then your left hand to feel your right breast. Use a firm, smooth touch with the first few finger pads of your hand, keeping the fingers flat and together. Use a circular motion, about the size of a quarter. Cover the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side — from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage.
Changes in your breasts to be aware of
- A change in size or shape – it may be that one breast has become larger.
- Changes in the nipple – in direction or shape, pulled in or flattened nipple.
- Changes on or around the nipple – rash, flaky or crusted skin.
- Changes in the skin – dimpling, puckering or redness.
- 'Orange peel’ appearance of the skin caused by unusually enlarged pores.
- Swelling in your armpit or around your collarbone.
- A lump, any size, or thickening in your breast.
- Constant pain in one part of your breast or armpit.
Know your normal
Just like the rest of our bodies grow and change throughout our lives, so will our breasts. Getting to know your breasts and what is normal to you right now will make it easier to spot changes and alert your GP if you feel like there is something not quite right.
The tissue in our breasts is affected by hormonal changes, meaning your breasts might feel different depending on what stage of your life you are in or what you are going through hormonally (pregnant, breastfeeding, menopause etc.)
Here are some hormonal changes that will affect your breasts:
- Your menstrual cycle: Each month, when you are having periods, your breasts often change. They can become bigger, tender and lumpy usually before a period starts and return to normal once the period is over. Some women, however, may have tender, lumpy breasts throughout their cycle.
- Pregnancy & breast-feeding: The changes that occur during your menstrual cycle continue during pregnancy. While breast-feeding, your breasts may be very enlarged, firm and tender; this is normal at this time. However, you should continue to check your breasts and discuss any unusual changes with your GP.
- Menopause: After the menopause your breasts will feel softer and they may get bigger or smaller. If there is a change in only one breast, you should discuss this with your doctor. HRT hormone replacement therapy may cause your breasts to feel firmer and quite tender.
Sources: WedMed, The Mayo Clinic, Irish Cancer Society and Breastcancer.org