October 1st marks the start of breast cancer awareness month. A whole month of open talking, supporting and promoting. Encouraging people to be breast- or even cancer-aware is an ongoing battle as we all settle into our busy lives forgetful of self-care and even awareness of our bodies.

Detecting cancer early is key to a better outcome, and you should report even slight changes within the shape of the breast or any hardening to your GP for further investigation.

Statistically, women who report changes early, thus being diagnosed in the early stages of cancer, have a greater chance of surviving their disease; in fact, 98% of people survive breast cancer for five years or more. Conversely, those in the later stages have a 26% chance, making early detection so important.

Early signs of breast cancer

Many women first become aware of changes when they detect a lump or swelling on or around the breast. Early stages of breast cancer can also produce symptoms such as –

  • Changes in shape and appearance, including size
  • An inverted nipple or the nipple appearing smaller and more drawn in
  • Changes around the areola of the nipple, such as peeling or dryness
  • Colour changes over the breasts, such as redding or sometimes a bruised appearance
  • Dimpling appearance, which may form like a rash and give the appearance of orange skin
  • Hard, thick skin or a noticeable lump
  • Fluid coming from the nipple
  • Pain

You can learn more about symptoms and share that information with friends on the Breast Cancer Now website, where you’ll find the campaign TLC – Touch – Look – Check.

How to check yourself for breast cancer

The best time to check your breasts is just before you go into the shower, preferably in the morning, as you won’t have any aches or sores from wearing a bra all day!

You also can look at your breasts in the mirror (all bathrooms usually have one) to give you a complete visual.

When you get into the shower

Now you can do a “feel” test using both hands. Again, getting some soap over your breasts and around your armpit is best.

With your arm raised, use two or three fingers to roll or massage your way clockwise around the breast. Be sure you do not miss any areas.

After checking the breast, check where your bra or underwire would sit and the fatty tissue over your ribs directly under your armpit.

Once you have checked the rib area, extend your search for any anomalies up from your rib and into your armpit.

After your shower

Face the mirror and look at your breast with your arms down.

Can you spot any visual changes?

Next, raise both arms and check again for any changes in appearance.

Turn to your left slightly so you can inspect your armpit and do the same on the right.

With both arms lowered again, look below your neck. Can you see any changes on or around your collarbone?

Remember you are looking for the early signs listed above.

What should you do if you find a lump in your breast?

Firstly don’t panic. There are plenty of reasons you may have a lump, including hormonal changes, ill-fitting bras, or injury, to name a few.

Regardless of any reason as to why you have a lump, your first port of call should always be to seek medical advice.

A medical practitioner, GP or gynaecologist can initiate treatment with a first physical exam. During so, your personal and family medical history will be taken. Then, if the health care professional feels further examinations need to take place, an appointment will be made to gather breast imagery, such as a mammogram.

What should I expect from a mammogram?

Mammograms are X-rays for the breasts, so you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by having one.

You can eat and drink as usual on the day of your mammogram, and there is little need for any preparation – we would, however, advise you wear comfortable clothing that you can whip on and off with ease. Some women prefer to wear an oversized shirt or buttoned blouse to stay warm and less exposed. You will be asked to take your clothes off from the waist upwards, so keep this in mind when getting dressed on the day!

You will be asked not to wear deodorant or talc as this may affect the imagery.

You will be asked to stand up against or close to the x-ray machine during the mammogram. Once you are ready, the two plates on the device will start to press your breast flat. This spreads the breast tissue out to get a clear image.

Each “compression” takes as little as six seconds.

Each breast is X-rayed twice, one compressing the breast sideways and the other from top to bottom.

Some women find the experience uncomfortable, with a few experiencing pain.

How do I book a mammogram check-up?

Most women over the age of 50 are automatically invited for breast screening. However, if you are over 40 years of age, you can self-refer even if you have not experienced any symptoms.

In some cases where a family history of breast cancer is dominant or those with genetic mutations, you can request a mammogram through your GP. In these cases, women are often invited in 10-15 years earlier, at the age of 35+.

If you are concerned about a lump or are worried due to family history, book an appointment with your GP to discuss this further.

Can men get breast cancer?

Believe it or not, over 350 men yearly are diagnosed with breast cancer. Although these numbers suggest breast cancer is rare in men, it is still important to check with your GP if you notice any changes.

Symptoms are the same as in women; however, testing or screening may differ. For example, men are often invited for a breast ultrasound if the GP feels there is cause for further investigation.

If you are concerned you may have breast cancer or are at high risk and wish to discuss your worries further, please do not hesitate to get in touch.