Breast Cancer Awareness month in October aims to raise awareness of the disease, including the importance of early identification, education, and research. So in the spirit of awareness-raising, we wanted to share five key facts about breast cancer, including how to spot it early.
1) Be aware of your risk factors
It's important to know your risk factors for breast cancer to help with early detection.
Firstly you should know your family medical history. Only a small proportion of breast cancers are inherited, but evidence suggests that those with a history of the disease amongst first-degree relatives are at a higher risk.
Secondly, you should learn about the density of your breasts this means the proportion of fatty to non-fatty tissue. This is important because women with very dense breasts can be six times more likely to develop breast cancer, and dense breasts can also make it much more difficult to spot tumours.
Finally, risk of breast cancer increases with age, particularly amongst woman over the age of 50. If you're unsure about your risk factors or think you may be at a higher risk, consult your local doctor for advice.
2) Check regularly
Most women know that they need to check their breasts regularly, but what exactly do we mean by this?
The general advice is to start checking your breasts once a month from your early 20s onwards. As a woman's breasts can change with their monthly cycle, it is best to examine yourself about one week after your period ends when they are least likely to be swollen and tender. Women that have already gone through menopause should stick to a routine such as checking their breasts on the first day of each month.
Many women find it easiest to examine their breasts in the shower or bath when their skin is wet, or when standing in front of the mirror. However, it is recommended to also check your breasts while lying down, as smaller lumps may be more difficult to spot when standing up.
When checking your breasts it is important to feel the entire area and not just the breast itself, including your armpit and up to your collarbone. It is best to use the pads of your fingers, moving them in a circular motion from the outside of the breast to the centre. As well as feeling for lumps, you should also look for visual changes when standing in front of a mirror, both with your arms on your hips and raised above your head.
There are easy step-by-step guides to follow on websites such as the National Breast Cancer Foundation and Breast Cancer.org.
As well as self-examination, between the ages of 20-40, it is recommended to get a professional breast exam from your doctor every year or so. After the age of 40-50 when risk factors are higher, you should get an annual mammogram, which is a type of X-ray of the breasts. Your local doctor should be able to advise you on when and how to arrange this.
3) Know the warning signs
If you are going to check your breasts regularly, it is important to know what to look for. Here are the top six warning signs to be aware of.
- a change in the size or shape of the breast
- a lump or area that feels thicker than the rest of the breast (with or without pain)
- a change in the look or feel of the skin, such as puckering or dimpling (like the skin of an orange)
- a change in the nipple position, e.g. being pulled in or pointing differently
- a rash or redness around the nipple
- any discharge from the nipple
If you experience any of these symptoms you should consult your doctor immediately. If you have a lump or pain in your breast, this does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer, as these symptoms can be caused by other normal bodily changes. However, it is best to get any concerns checked out straight away, as early detection of breast cancer is key.
4) Live well
As with all forms of cancer, prevention is better than cure. While the causes of breast cancer are still not entirely known, evidence shows that regular exercise and eating well can help lower your risk of many types of cancer, including breast cancer.
Naturally, you should eat a balanced diet, avoid smoking and limit and your alcohol intake. Some doctors also recommend eating cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale, and antioxidant-rich fruits such as blueberries and raspberries, which are good for maintaining breast health.
5) Breast cancer doesn't only affect women
Most people think of breast cancer as a woman's disease, but men can get it too. Whilst it is much rarer in men, it can still be a very serious condition. The most common symptom for men is a lump near the nipple, often painless, but men should also look out for any discharge and sores near the nipple or swelling under the arm.