October is Breast Cancer awareness month.
Breast cancer is now the most common cancer in the UK and is by far the most common cancer in women, with 1 in 7 women in the UK developing breast cancer during their lifetime (1) While it is more common as we age, breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in women under the age of 30 in the UK.
We ALL have breast tissue and people of all genders and sexes can get breast cancer. Being breast aware, knowing what is normal for you, and noticing any new changes is the first step in detecting breast cancer in the early stages.
Breast aware vs Breast Self Examination (BSE)
Over the years, there has been some debate over just how valuable breast self-examination is in detecting breast cancer early and reducing deaths from breast cancer. Because of the ongoing uncertainty raised by some studies, some organisations such as the American Cancer Society no longer recommend regular breast self-exam as a screening tool for women who do not have a high risk of breast cancer (2). However they do encourage women to be breast aware and know what is normal for them. Here in the UK, we are still encouraging women to regularly check their breasts.
How to check your breasts
Stand in front of the mirror bare-breasted and scan your breasts for any changes. Repeat this standing to each side, with your hands raised above your head and finally with your hands on your hips pushing inwards so that you tense your chest muscles.
Feel each breast. This ideally should be done lying down (head propped up on 2-3 pillows) but can be done standing up if you have small breasts. Using the flat underside of your fingers (not pressing down with your fingertips) gently push the breast tissue against your ribcage. Check all of the breast and don’t forget to feel all the way up to the collarbones and into the armpit.
Changes to look for:
- a new lump, swelling, thickening or bumpy area in one breast or armpit
- A change in shape or size of one or both breasts.
- a change in the look or feel of the skin on your breast, such as puckering or dimpling (like the skin of an orange)
- Discharge from the nipple (which may be coloured or blood stained)
- A change in the shape, or inversion, of the nipple.
- A rash, crusting, itching or redness on the skin and/or around the nipple
- Discomfort or pain* in one breast that is new and doesn’t go away
*pain is only a symptom of breast cancer in rare cases
Know what’s normal for you.
Everyone’s breasts are different in terms of size, shape and feel – it’s also not uncommon to have one breast slighty larger than the other. It’s normal for your breast to change throughout your life, for example at puberty, during the menstrual cycle and after the menopause. Getting to know natural changes in your breasts will help you to detect anything unusual quickly. The more familiar you are with how your breasts look and feel, the more confidence you will have contacting your doctor about any concerns.
If in doubt, get it checked out
If you found a lump, or noticed a change, or even if you’re not quite sure. See your GP as they are the best person to check for you and also refer you for any scans or further tests are needed.
p.s. If you’re aged 50 to 70 in the UK you will also be invited for routine screening.
- Cancer Research UK. Breast Cancer Statisitcs. Available at: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/breast-cancer
- Cancer.Org. Breast Cancer FAQ. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/frequently-asked-questions-about-the-american-cancer-society-new-breast-cancer-screening-guideline.html#:~:text=The%20ACS%20no%20longer%20recommends,for%20women%20of%20any%20age