Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Indian women. Owing to a lack of awareness of this disease and in the absence of breast cancer screening programs, the majority of breast cancers are diagnosed at a relatively advanced stage. Breast health education, early detection & treatment are expected to bring about the much-needed improvement in survival.
Breast self-exam is the regular examination of one’s own breasts to check for changes that may need to be further evaluated as part of screening for breast cancer. The method involves the woman herself looking at and feeling each breast for possible lumps, distortions or swelling.
It is recommended that all women perform monthly breast self-exams, beginning in their 20’s and continuing throughout life. Breast self-exams should be done approximately the same day of every month for postmenopausal women, and the same day of the menstrual cycle for those who are menstruating. By regularly examining their breasts women become familiar with their normal feel and the shape, size, and texture of the breasts thus are more able to detect subtle changes.
In its early stages, breast cancer has few symptoms. However, the earlier that breast cancer is detected, the more treatment options are available and the greater the likelihood of recovery.
A variety of methods and patterns are used in breast self-exams. Most methods suggest that the woman stands in front of a mirror with the torso exposed to view & look in the mirror for visual signs of dimpling, swelling or redness on or near the breasts & extending towards the armpits. Using the pads of your fingers, not the tips, palpate your breasts while lying down and again in the shower when you are soaped. The soap helps the fingers to glide over the breast. Using three fingers gently go over the entire breast in small circular movements, remembering to cover the entire breast, the armpits and the area above the collarbone. Women who are not breastfeeding should also gently squeeze each nipple to check for any discharge.
Inspect your breasts for the following:
- Breast lumps
- Swelling under the arm/armpit
- Pain in the breast or nipple
- New dimples in the skin on the breast
- The skin on the breast becoming swollen, red or hot
- Sudden changes in the breast size
- Changes in shape in only one of the breasts like dimpling & puckering asymmetrical ridges at the bottom
- Having the nipple newly turn inward (invert)
- Non-milky liquid coming from the nipple
If you find a lump, abnormality or notice other unusual changes, don’t panic. About 80% of lumps found are not cancerous. See your doctor promptly for further evaluation. Remember that the vast majority of breast abnormalities turn out to be benign, or noncancerous.
Besides cancer, breast lumps can be caused by:
- Adenofibroma: a benign tumour of the breast tissue
- Fibrocystic breast disease: painful, lumpy breasts caused by hormone changes
- Intraductal papilloma: a small, benign tumour of the milk ducts
- Mammary fat necrosis: lumps formed by bruised, dead, or injured fat tissue.
Each woman’s breasts has their own normal look and feel. By completing a BSE each month, a woman can determine what is normal for her and check for changes that may arise. A regular pattern of lumpiness in the breasts is normal.
If any changes are noticed during a monthly BSE, such as a new, hard lump in the breast or underarms, a doctor should examine the area immediately.
Other trouble signs that should not be ignored include:
- change in breast size or shape
- dimpling or puckering of the skin
- redness, swelling, or warmth that does not go away
- a pain in one area that does not vary with a woman’s monthly cyclea nipple that pulls in
- discharge from the nipple that begins suddenly and appears only in one breast
- one nipple that has an itchy, sore or scaling area
Not all breast cancer shows itself as a breast lump or through breast pain. Diagnosing breast cancer is a process, and the symptoms of a breast tumour can vary from person to person. If you are worried that your pain is a sign of breast cancer, or if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, talk to your doctor about appropriate next steps.