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Breast Cancer – Signs, Symptoms and How to Perform a Self-Check

1 in 7 women in the UK will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. The most common sign is a lump, but it’s not always cancerous – sometimes it’s a cyst or lumps caused by hormones or milk glands filling up. Checking your breasts regularly can help you understand what is normal for you and when something has changed and, because it’s so important to know how to do this and what to look for, we decided to ask Nina Vinall (pictured right), Chief Clinical Officer at Visionable what to look out for and how to check for lumps and other signs of breast cancer.

When should women check their breasts?

At least once a month around the same time, each time. Breast tissue changes depending on where you are on your menstrual cycle – you do get lumps and bumps and sometimes cysts around this time so it’s important to understand your breasts for when they do and don’t feel normal. It’s important to be familiar with and know your breasts!

What causes breast cysts and what should women look out for?

Breast cysts are caused by hormonal changes and are not cancerous. They don’t always need treatment and some may go away on their own. But every lump should be investigated. They may become very painful or large, you should speak with your doctor as they may need treatment such as aspirating under Ultra Sound Scan (USS) guidance. Another reason for checking them is that they can sometimes not be benign, there may be something inside the cyst growing on the side of the cyst wall, again USS will help with the diagnosis.

How should we check our breasts?

First, look at your breasts in the mirror. You should look for shape, symmetry, size, colour (and if they have any change in colour particularly around the areola), signs of swelling and general appearance. You should be looking for changes or differences such as rash or redness, dimpling, puckering or indentations in the breasts, scaly dryness of the nipple and areola and signs of fluid coming from your nipples such as discharge of any colour.  You must check for these even if you’ve breastfed.  Breastfeeding reduces your risk but does not eliminate the risk entirely. Sometimes checking in the bath or shower is easier on wet skin.

You should also feel your breasts whilst laying down and standing up. To do this, lay down and put your left arm behind your head, while using your  right hand to feel your left breast, and repeat the other side, right arm under head and feel your right breast with your left hand. . Keeping your fingers flat and together, use a small circular motion to feel each breast from the top to bottom, around your armpit and up to your collarbone and chest wall. Then stand up and push your hands onto your hips to check symmetry and any dimpling. Some people examine their breasts in a circular motion from outside working in, including the nipple, some work up and down the breast, find what suits you and stick with the same method to identify changes.

When should we start checking for signs?

At least once a month, at the same time each month as breast tissue changes depending on where you are on your cycle. Make it a routine so that it becomes a habit. It’s so important to understand your breasts. You should start checking as soon as you develop as this breaks down the barrier of not being able to do it as you get older and it becomes more routine. Start checking now. Don’t wait – even if you have small breasts, it doesn’t mean you will be at less risk!

When should you speak with your doctor?

When you notice something out of the ordinary. If you’re checking regularly, you’ll notice these changes. It’s important to call your GP immediately, even if you are someone that regularly gets benign cysts, as there could be something else inside them. It’s very important to book your mammogram when you receive an invite to do so.

Don’t panic if you do find a lump. It may not be breast cancer, sometimes it’s just hormonal changes or something benign but do see your GP immediately. Finding and acting on lumps early will prevent more extensive treatment or surgery later. So act now.