How to check yourself for breast cancer

Reader's Digest Editors

One in seven women in the UK will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes—but early detection can make all the difference. Here's how to check your breasts for the early signs of cancer. 

Women discover nearly 80 per cent of breast cancers through self- examinations. You should perform a self-examination once a month, about a week after your period ends.

If you’re past menopause or have irregular periods, perform the examination on the same date each month.

 

woman celebrating

 

Here's how:

  • Lie down, slip a pillow under your right shoulder and tuck your right arm behind your head. (Some women check their breasts in the shower or bathtub because wet, soapy fingers glide more easily.)
  • Pressing firmly, feel your right breast with the fingers of your left hand. Work in a circle (from the centre out) or in an up-and-down pattern, until you’ve covered the entire breast.
  • Now move the pillow under your left shoulder, tuck your left hand behind your head and check your left breast with your right hand.
  • Next stand in front of a mirror with your hands on your hips, then raised overhead and look for any visible lumps, skin puckering, dimpling or nipple changes. Gently squeeze each nipple to check for discharge.

If you feel a lump, don’t panic—it’s not necessarily a tumour. It may simply be a noncancerous hardening of tissue called a fibrous breast lump or a benign cyst (a fluid-filled sac that can be painful). Call your doctor as soon as possible.

Although it’s rare, men can get breast cancer, too. Early symptoms include a painless lump, skin ulceration and nipple changes like retraction and discharge, which may be bloody.

 

Mammograms

mammogram

The risk of breast cancer increases with age, so it’s unfortunate that older women are less likely to have mammograms. In one survey, more than 50 per cent of women between ages 75 and 85 had never had one. It is important that women over 64 also have regular mammograms every two years. There is also increasing evidence that well women aged 40 to 49 benefit from regular screening.

If you’re frightened by the radiation exposure during a mammogram, consider this: a woman getting a single dose of radiation for treatment of breast cancer receives several thousand rads (units of energy from radiation). A woman getting a mammogram every year between the ages of 40 and 90 receives only 10 rads.

Who needs it? If you are aged between 40 and 49, and particularly if you are "at risk" of breast cancer, you should discuss mammography with your doctor. If you decide to have mammograms, they should be done yearly as cancers tend to grow more quickly in younger women.

 

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