October may be the officially designated breast cancer awareness month, but breast cancer prevention requires year-round vigilance that includes regular mammogram screenings, healthy lifestyle choices and the all-important monthly breast cancer self-exam.
Your Life May Literally Be in Your Hands
Your monthly breast check is a critical step in your overall breast cancer screening strategy. Never has the phrase holding your life in your hands had more literal meaning.
In fact, statistics confirm that 20% of breast cancers are found through physical exam instead of mammography.
The key to successful breast self-examination is repetition. The more familiar you become with your breasts, the easier it will be to recognize something unusual or abnormal.
Stand in front of the mirror with your hands on your hips and observe whether your breasts are their usual size, shape and color without any visible distortion, dimpling, puckering, bulging or swelling.
Be aware of any redness or rashes and check nipples to make sure they have not changed positions or have not become inverted.
Make sure there is no discharge flowing from them. Raise your arms and continue observing.
Once you are lying down on your back, place a pillow under your left shoulder and raise your left arm as you right hand examines your left breast. Use a circular motion and a firm smooth touch keeping the fingers flat and together. Cover the entire breast from top to bottom and side to side, from collarbone to abdomen and armpit to cleavage.
You can begin at the nipple and moving in larger and larger circles until you reach the outer edge of the breast. You can also move your fingers up and down vertically, in rows, as if you were mowing a lawn. This up-and-down approach seems to work best for most women.
Be sure to feel all the tissue from the front to the back of your breasts: for the skin and tissue just beneath, use light pressure; use medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts; use firm pressure for the deep tissue in the back. When you've reached the deep tissue, you should be able to feel down to your ribcage.
Repeat on the other side.
Finally, feel your breasts while you are standing or sitting. Many women find soaping up in the shower so the skin is wet and slippery makes this easier. Cover each breast the same way you did in step 2.
Breast Cancer Self-Check FYI
Breast self-examination begins at age 20 and never ends.
The best time to perform your monthly self-exam is several days after the end of your period when the breasts are least likely to be swollen and tender. If periods are in your rearview mirror, simply choose a day that’s easy to remember like the first or last day of the month.
Most importantly, if you do feel something suspicious, don’t panic. Breast tissue is naturally lumpy and bumpy so it can be difficult to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy tissue. As you get to know all the different areas of your breasts, you will be able to immediately alert your doctor to any changes or new discoveries.
Some women find it helpful to draw a small map of their breasts and make notes on locations of questionable lumps or irregularities. This can be helpful in remembering from month to month what is normal for your particular body.
So, What Are You Feeling For?
There is no 100% positive way to describe a lump that is cancerous. In general, malignancies feel firm or solid and immovable as they may be fixed to the breast tissue. They tend to be more irregular in shape and are often painless. Although a painful breast lump can turn out to be cancerous. Chances are what you are feeling is a benign cyst or fibroadenoma but it’s always best to tell your doctor if you notice anything concerning so you can get a definitive evaluation.
Mammogram Screening Guidelines
Women age 40-44 Begin annual breast cancer screening if you wish to do so.
Women age 45-54 Annual mammogram
Women age 55+ Continue annual mammogram or switch to screening every 2 years.
If you have a family history or genetic predisposition toward breast cancer, talk to your physician to create a more personalized screening plan that may include MRIs along with routine mammograms.
Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer
There are some lifestyle choices that can help in reducing your risk of breast cancer, such as:
Limit Alcohol to less than one drink per day
Stay physically active
Control Your Weight
Healthy lifestyle choices can significantly improve your odds of avoiding breast cancer. And early detection through self-exam and mammograms can save your life. What are you waiting for?