When was the last time you checked your breasts?
And we don’t mean a quick squeeze, or a glance in the mirror, but a proper at-home breast examination to check for any irregularities or changes?
The likelihood is, not recently. According to research conducted in 2018 by Breast Cancer Now, less than half of us (British women) were regularly checking our breasts for signs of cancer, and almost one in ten of us had never checked at all.
We get that – in our busier than ever, working overtime, Southern-Rail-strike-ridden lives – taking the time and remembering to check ourselves might not be a priority. Especially if you consider yourself ‘low risk’ (young, with no family history of cancer).
But, considering that breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK for women (according to charity Breast Cancer Now, around 5,000 people will be diagnosed this October alone), with one woman diagnosed every ten minutes, and one in seven females developing it in their lifetime, taking a few minutes to give your boobs the once over should really be pushed to the top of your to-do list.
How To Check Your Breasts For Cancer
If you’re wondering where (how, why, and when) to start, we spoke to Consultant Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon Jennifer Rusby, based at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, to put together a handy guide for getting handsy with your breasts.
How often should you do at-home breast checks?
Although breast cancer is most commonly found in women over 50 years old, it is – albeit more rarely – diagnosed at younger ages. Each year, around 4% of cases in the UK are in women aged 39 or under, which is still over 2,000 people.
Rusby suggests that ‘it’s a good idea to become familiar with what is normal for your breasts and to get into the habit of examining yourself even in your 20s.’
Timings wise, a monthly check is best, either a few days after the end of your menstrual period or on the first day of the month if you aren’t having periods. Jennifer adds…
- There are apps to help you remember, or set a reminder in your calendar.
- You could ask a friend to be a ‘bosom buddy’, to remind each other to check and support if either of you find anything.
- Some women plan their checks for the beginning of the week (Monday) so if they find something that worries them they can seek support straight away.
- If you’re on a screening programme, make sure to still do at-home checks in between appointments.
What should you be feeling for in a breast check?
A nice pair of healthy breasts come in all shapes and sizes: some are naturally lumpy, some more firm, others softer. The key, says Jennifer, is ‘learning what is normal for you, so that when there is a change you notice it.’
You are looking for the following:
1.A PAINLESS LUMP
‘It can be anywhere, so check all around (including behind the nipple and up towards the armpit).’ With the glands under the arms, it’s important to try to pay close attention. ‘We all have glands under our arms (like the ones that come up under our chins when we have a sore throat) but an enlarged gland in the armpit can be a sign of cancer.
‘If it’s tender, it’s likely to be doing its usual job of fighting infection and isn’t anything to worry about, but if it’s new, not tender and you can feel it for more than a week or so, please do seek advice.’
2. A CHANGE IN BREAST SIZE OR SHAPE
‘If there is a change so they no longer match in shape, or the skin seems puckered or pulled in when you raise your arms that should be checked.’
3. SIGNS AROUND THE NIPPLES
‘If you see a rash on the nipple and you don’t suffer from eczema, or have a red breast like mastitis but you aren’t breast feeding then you should seek advice. Finally, if you notice spontaneous discharge from the nipple that is clear or blood-stained this, too, can be a sign.’
How To Check Your Breasts At Home
Follow Jennifer’s step-by-step guide below (or, if you’re more of a visual person, follow this link to her video guide)…
- Stand in front of a mirror, topless and in a good light. And start by looking at yourself.
- Raise your arms up above your head and down again. You’re looking to see if your breasts match.
- The key signs to look out for are new difference in the nipple position, nipple changes, rashes, or skin pulling back.
- Then check your breasts using your fingers. It’s important to feel with the flats of your fingers rather than the tips. If you examine with your fingertips, you’ll find most breasts are slightly lumpy but it’s lumpiness rather than a lump, and that’s an important difference. You’re looking for a lump, with the flats of your fingers.
- If you do it with your arm above your head, whether reclined on a bed or in the shower, it spreads the breast out so you’re not feeling through so much depth.
- Think of the spokes of a wheel where your nipple is at the centre. Feel up and down one spoke and then move around the breast moving up and down from the nipple to the outside of the breast methodically in a circle. Don’t forget behind the nipple and under the armpit.
What are some common mistakes or misconceptions about breast checks?
According to Jennifer, even with so much information available to the public there is sadly a lot of confusion around at-home breast checks still.
A FEW THINGS TO REMEMBER…
- Whether you’re blessed with little or large breasts, the method to checking them remains the same. If yours are on the larger side, Rusby advises you may ‘need to shift position as you examine, so you are able to feel all of each breast.’
- Checking in the shower might seem like a convenient time to do it (you’re already topless, you’re already moving your hands around your body) but it’s important to look in the mirror too, as ‘sometimes a change is visible before you can see it’, reminds Jennifer.
- Unfortunately, you’re never too old to get breast cancer, so there’s no age when you should stop checking.
- Although rare, breast cancer can occur in men, usually those over 60 or with a strong history of breast cancer. ‘Men should check their chests and look out for the same symptoms’, says Jennifer, ‘particularly nipple discharge, a pulled in nipple, a lump or swelling in the chest or armpit.’
If you’ve checked your breasts and you don’t feel any lumps but do feel pain, what should you do?
The easy answer is, don’t panic. ‘Pain alone is only very rarely associated with breast cancer’, says Jennifer, ‘and if you’ve checked your breasts thoroughly, pain alone is nothing to worry about.’
Soreness in that area is experienced by 60% of women, usually in a cyclical and hormonal manner around their periods, or sometimes associated with changes in contraception, diet, muscular or rib pain or simply ill-fitting bras.
What to do if you notice a change during your breast check
‘If you notice a change, it’s important to see your GP’, says Jennifer. But she adds, importantly, ‘to remember that most breast lumps turn out not to be cancer. The key is to check yourself regularly so you get used to what your breasts look and feel like, so that if anything ever changes, you will notice it’.
The more you check yourself, the better you’ll know your breasts. The better you know your breasts, the more likely to are to notice a change. And the earlier any diagnosis is made, the better the chance of successful treatment. If you’re not already checking yourself, there’s no time like the present.