How to check yourself for breast cancer
The strongest line of defence against breast cancer, based on international research, is personal awareness among women. Most breast cancers are discovered by women themselves during everyday activities like undressing, showering or bathing.
It is important that every woman is breast aware, according to the Irish Cancer Society. This means knowing what is normal for you, so that if any unusual changes occur you will recognise them.
Breast cancer can be treated
- Being aged 50 years or older.
- Starting your monthly periods before the age of 12.
- A family history of breast cancer.
- Dense breast tissue as shown by a mammogram.
The earlier a cancer is noticed and treated, the better the treatment results. More than 1700 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year in Ireland, so it is advisable for all women to get into the habit of feeling and looking at your breasts regularly.
Younger women have a unique experience with breast changes and breast cancer. Dating, fertility concerns, children, careers - young women are at a different life stage than older women and face breast cancer with a different outlook.
For these reasons - and as advised by medical experts and the Irish Cancer Society - it is important to regularly check your breasts for changes. Issues to note include:
- A change in size or shape: one breast may have become larger.
- Changes on or around the nipple: in direction or shape, or in skin texture.
- Orange peel appearance of the skin with 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.
The Irish Cancer Society has produced leaflets and shower cards to detail the process of self-examination for breast changes. Its main pointers to note are: know what is normal for you; know what changes to look for; look and feel regularly; discuss any changes with your GP without delay, and attend for routine breast screening if you are aged between 50 and 64.
Medical research recommends performing breast self-examinations while lying down, beginning by placing your right arm behind your head. In this position the breast tissue spreads evenly over the chest wall and is as thin as possible, making it much easier to feel all the way through.
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The American Cancer Society has the following recommendations for a self-examination: Use the finger pads of the three middle fingers on your left hand to feel for lumps in the right breast.
Use overlapping coin-sized circular motions of the finger pads to feel the breast tissue.
Use three different levels of pressure
Use three different levels of pressure to feel all the breast tissue. Light pressure is needed to feel the tissue closest to the skin; medium pressure to feel a little deeper; and firm pressure to feel the tissue closest to the chest and ribs. It is normal to feel a firm ridge in the lower curve of each breast, but you should tell your doctor if you feel anything else out of the ordinary. If you're not sure how hard to press, talk with your doctor or nurse. Use each pressure level to feel the breast tissue before moving on to the next spot.
Move around the breast in an up-and-down pattern, starting at an imaginary line drawn straight down your side from the underarm and moving across the breast to the middle of the chest bone. Be sure to check the entire breast area going down until you feel only ribs and up to the neck or collar bone. There is some evidence to suggest that the up-and-down pattern is the most effective pattern for covering the entire breast, without missing any breast tissue.
Repeat the exam on your left breast, putting your left arm behind your head and using the finger pads of your right hand to do the exam. If you notice any change in your breasts, see your GP. When your GP examines your breasts she or he may be able to reassure you that there is nothing to worry about. If the change is possibly connected with your hormones, your GP may ask you to come back at a different stage in your menstrual cycle.
The Action Breast Cancer campaign with the Irish Cancer Society advises women not to worry that you may be making an unnecessary fuss, and to remember that nine out of ten breast lumps are harmless.