Why have an entire month dedicated to breast cancer awareness? Well, first things first – breast cancer – a disease in which cells in the breast multiply and cause abnormalities – is the most common cancer in the UK. And secondly, while the majority of cases are seen within cisgender women, anyone with breast tissue (which means everyone) is at risk. Both very good reasons why Breast Cancer Awareness Month is marked every October.
But that’s not to say you need to live in fear, because getting yourself into a routine of regularly checking your breasts (or pecs) can help you spot the early signs, and stay on top of your breast health.
Feel on the first: check your breasts once a month
Despite showering and dressing every day, many of us neglect to look at our own bodies in detail. We might see our breasts daily, but we’re rarely actively looking. This is where the ‘feel on the first’ idea comes in.
Get into the routine of checking your chest on the first day of every calendar month. Set a reminder on your phone, create a group with your pals and send a friendly prompt, or put a reminder in your work calendar diary. Whatever method works best for you, this monthly check-in is your first and most important line of defence.
Check for changes – and don’t be shy
You might be in the habit of checking for lumps (which is a great start, happy GP over here!), but it’s good to be mindful of all changes that can occur on and around your breast. When you’re in the habit of regularly checking, you’ll more easily be able to notice any abnormalities and changes, and know what the norm is for your body.
Here’s what to check and be mindful of:
- New or changing lumps in the breast tissue
- Lumps around the breast area (including up to your collarbone) and under the armpit
- Skin changes on, under and around the breast, including rashes or dimpling
- Nipple changes (including any change in position, crusting, redness or itchiness)
- Nipple discharge
- Unusual pain, discomfort and soreness
If you notice anything unusual, make an appointment with your GP right away.
Lumps in the breast – when should you be worried, and what’s normal?
If you find a lump, don’t be alarmed. It’s very normal to have lumpy breasts, which can fluctuate throughout a monthly menstrual cycle due to hormones, change with age and completely depend on our individual body types.
Even if you do spot something outside of the ordinary for your body, it’s worth remembering that 80-85% of lumps found in the breast tissue are non-cancerous. They can be a cyst, benign tumour or hormone-related. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be extra cautious and speak to a medical professional if you do find a lump.
What to do if you notice breast changes or have concerns
Whether it’s a new lump or nipple discharge, book an appointment with your GP at the first signs of anything unusual. They will first listen to your concerns before conducting an examination. Your GP will then decide whether or not to refer you to a breast clinic, where you can undergo further checks.
From there, the first course of action is usually to undergo a mammogram (an X-ray of the breast), from which experts can usually determine whether a lump is cancerous. If they can’t tell from an initial scan, a small biopsy (sample of cells) will be taken from your breast tissue for further tests.
Scared or embarrassed to see your GP?
Worried that only cisgendered women will be taken seriously? Or think you need to be a certain age to express concerns over breast cancer? Maybe you’re insecure over your breast size or shape? Whatever it is that might be holding you back from making an appointment, please rest assured that as doctors, we’re really not here to judge, and we really have seen it all before.
We only want to do the best we can to diagnose any problem or to ease your concerns. Whatever your gender identity, age, race or history with implants and surgical alterations, everyone is welcomed and encouraged to speak to their GPs about their breast tissue health.
Genetic predisposition and biological family history
As many people will be aware, knowing your biological family history can be important when it comes to the early diagnosis of breast cancer. Many of us have heard of the link between the BRCA gene and breast cancer, but what does that really mean?
Everyone has two BRCA genes, one from each of their biological parents. Typically, these genes produce proteins that help to repair DNA, which can actually prevent cancer. However, when one of these genes is mutated, it doesn’t fulfil its restorative purpose. Around one in 400 people is thought to inherit a mutated BRCA gene.
If a close family member such as your mother or a sister, has been affected by breast cancer, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor right away and you can ask to be tested for the gene defect. (Usually, any relatives with cancer will also be asked to have a diagnostic blood test first.)
If the mutation is detected, don’t panic as steps can be taken to help reduce your risk. After counselling services and discussions with experts, measures can be put into place, including regular mammograms. Some women who are at high risk may choose to have a voluntary mastectomy.
If you’re not able to access your biological history, try not to worry. Keeping up with your ‘feel them on the first’ approach is still your greatest line of defence.
Age and routine testing on the NHS
While everyone is encouraged to check their breasts regularly, women within a certain age bracket in the UK will be invited for regular mammograms by the NHS. Women aged between 50 and 71 will be automatically invited to make an appointment for a breast screening every three years.
But whatever your age, always take that first step to book in with your GP as soon as you notice changes, feel pain or soreness, or simply want to put your mind at rest.
Read more from Doctor Shireen and Nature’s Truth’s panel of experts here.