Check your breast – how to perform a breast cancer self check

October 1, 2018

Check your breast – how to perform a breast cancer self check

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means ladies (and men), it’s a timely reminder to check your chest. Kelly Hart from BreastScreen Queensland Sunshine Coast explains who is most at risk and what can be done to reduce your risk of breast cancer.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells in the breast tissues multiply and form an invasive (or malignant) tumour. Not all tumours are invasive, some are benign tumours that are not life-threatening.

Who is most at risk?

Queensland women have a one-in-eight chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer by the age of 85 and like many other diseases, the risk increases as you get older. Seventy-five per cent of breast cancers are detected in women over 50.

Women are often surprised to be told that 90 per cent of breast cancers are diagnosed in women without a family history of the disease. However, having an immediate relative such as one of your parents or siblings with breast cancer or a number of more distant relatives on the same side of the family with breast cancer increases your risk. About five to 10 per cent of breast cancers occur in women whose families have a gene mutation that is passed down through the family and puts them at a greater risk.

Breast cancer does occur in men, however it is rarer and more difficult to detect. For this reason, men of all ages are encouraged to report any changes or concerns they have about their breasts to their doctors. 

healthy breast

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

Changes which women should look out for include:

• A new lump or lumpiness in your breasts, especially if it is only one breast

• A change in the size or shape of their breasts

• A change to the nipple such as crusting, an ulcer, redness or the nipple pulled in

• A change in the skin of your breast such as redness or dimpling or puckered skin

• A pain that does not go away 

How often should we perform self-checks? 

Even if you have regular screens, it is still important to check your breasts regularly because breast cancer can develop at any time, including in between screens. Everyone’s breasts look and feel different so it’s important to become familiar with the normal look and feel of your breast. There is no right or wrong way to check your breasts for any changes. Try to get used to looking and feeling your breasts regularly. You can do this in the bath or shower or when you get dressed. Whatever you feel most comfortable with. When checking your breasts; you need to make sure you check all parts of your breasts, your armpits and up to your collarbone. If you notice any changes in your breasts or something that is not “normal” for you then you should see your GP immediately. 

What is a breast screen?

A breast screen or mammogram is a low dose x-ray examination of the breast. It can show very small breast cancers before they can be seen or felt. The radiation, which a woman is exposed to during a mammogram is equivalent to six weeks exposure to natural radiation that exists in our environment.

Mammograms are performed by radiographers. The radiographer will assist you to place one breast at a time between two plates on the mammography machine. The machine will press firmly on your breast for about 10 seconds to take the picture. Usually two pictures are taken of each breast, one from the side and one from the top. Having a mammogram usually only takes a few minutes.

Who needs to have a breast screen and how often does it need to be done?

A breast screen every two years is strongly recommended for women aged between 50 and 74, as the evidence of benefit is strongest in this age group. Women aged 40 to 49 and 75 years and over should talk to their GP about whether they should have a free mammogram. Screening mammograms are not effective for women under 40 years of age.

How effective is it?

Mammograms or breast screens are the most effective, proven method of detecting breast cancer early. Essentially, they bring forward the time at which breast cancer can be diagnosed, so that the cancer can be found when it’s small, confined to the breast and hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes.

The number of women being diagnosed with breast cancer continues to rise, with 18,087 women expected to be diagnosed in 2018. But with the help of early detection and the increased treatment options that are available the number of deaths resulting from breast cancer has dropped and the five-year survival rate has increased to 90 per cent. 

However, like most screening tools, mammograms are not 100 per cent accurate. There is a very small chance that a screening mammogram will look normal even if a cancer is present. For every woman screened, less than one women in a 1000 was found to have breast cancer within 12 months of their screen, that was not picked up by the screening mammogram.

What are some of the common myths surrounding breast cancer?

There are many myths about breast cancer and sometimes it’s hard to know what to believe and what to ignore. Some myths we know are simply not true, such as that women with small breasts won’t develop breast cancer. Other common myths for the causes of breast cancer, which are not supported by research, are wearing underwire or tight-fitting bras, using antiperspirants or deodorants, stress or bumps or knocks to the breast.

What can women do to reduce their risk of breast cancer?

Obviously, women have no control over getting older or their genetic make-up.
There are, however, many positive lifestyle changes which women can make to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer and improve their overall wellbeing. Maintaining a healthy weight through an active lifestyle and a healthy diet is particularly important for post-menopausal women. But women of all ages will benefit from limiting their alcohol intake and quitting or reducing smoking. 

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