Get ready for a sea of pink ribbons to flood your social media feeds—October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when non-profits and health systems across the country dedicate their resources to raising awareness and funds for research into the cause, prevention, and treatment of breast cancer.
The search for a cure for breast cancer has been ongoing for decades, but as far as raising awareness, most of us are fully aware of the disease and probably know someone who has been personally affected by it. In fact, breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer among women in the United States; each year in the U.S., about 264,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women and about 2,400 in men. Breast cancer causes over 42,000 deaths in our country nationally. It’s no wonder that so many organizations are working to find the best treatment and cure for this pervasive disease.
While most of us are aware of the serious impact of breast cancer, many people aren’t clear on the symptoms to look out for, or how to accurately perform a breast exam on themselves. Let’s dive in.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
We’ve all heard the stories about someone feeling a new lump in their breast or underarm—and while that is certainly the most common symptom, a mass or lump isn’t the only telltale sign of breast cancer. Other symptoms to look out for include:
- Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
- Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
- Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
- Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
- Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
- Pain in any area of the breast.
Any of these symptoms are cause for a consultation with your doctor, so if you’re feeling breast pain or notice any other change in how your breasts look or feel, set up an appointment with your primary care physician as soon as possible. Breast cancer can be fast moving, so time is of the essence.
How to Perform a Self-Exam
The validity of breast self-exams has been debated in recent years, with some studies suggesting that self-examinations may simply result in more unnecessary biopsies of benign tumors. However, BreastCancer.org argues that “breast self-examination is a useful and important screening tool, especially when used in combination with regular physical exams by a doctor, mammography, and in some cases ultrasound and/or MRI.”
If nothing else, the best way to know if there is something amiss with your breasts is to get familiar with how they normally look and feel. If you have an intimate knowledge of the regular texture, density, and visual appearance of your breast tissue, you’ll be better prepared to recognize if something isn’t quite right.
Here’s how to conduct a self-exam, according to the Cleveland Clinic:
- Visual inspection: With your shirt and bra removed, stand in front of a mirror. Put your arms down by your sides and observe the shape and texture of your breasts, as well as the appearance of your nipples. Next, raise your arms high overhead and look for the same things. Finally, put your hands on your hips and press firmly to make your chest muscles flex. Look for the same changes again. Be sure to look at both breasts.
- Manual inspection while standing up: With your shirt and bra removed, use your right hand to examine your left breast, then vice versa. With the pads of your three middle fingers, press on every part of the breast with light, medium, and firm pressure. (A circular pattern can help make sure you’re touching every area). Take note of any lumps, thick spots or other changes in your breast tissue as well as under the arm. Be sure to check under the areola and then squeeze the nipple gently to check for discharge. Repeat the steps on the other side of your body. Pro tip: Many people find this process easier in the shower!
- Manual inspection while lying down: When you lie down, your breast tissue spreads out more evenly, which makes it easier to feel for any changes. Lie down and put a pillow under your right shoulder. Place your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand, apply the same technique as step 2, using the pads of your fingers to press all parts of the breast tissue and under your arm. Finally, swap the pillow to the other side, and check the other breast and armpit.
Schedule Your Preventative Screenings
Mammograms are one of the best ways to chart any changes in your breasts and spot cancer in its early stages. Current guidelines from the American Cancer Society recommend that women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms if they decide to do so; women aged 45 to 54 should get annual mammograms, while women 55 and older can switch to getting mammograms every two years.
You should also discuss potential risk factors with your doctor that may be cause for earlier screening. If you have a family history of breast cancer, or genetic testing indicates that you have a higher risk of developing it, your physician may recommend getting mammograms than 40, or more frequently.
While we are hopeful that a cure for breast cancer will come in our lifetime, it’s important for all people to understand both their risk factors and how to spot cancer in its early stages until then. This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we hope you’ll take the time to get to know your breasts and schedule your preventative screenings for the coming year.