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Doctor’s Diary: How to Do a Breast Self-Exam for Breast Cancer?

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In 2020, there were 2.3 million women diagnosed with breast cancer and 685,000 deaths worldwide. What is more worrisome is that the incidence is alarmingly increasing globally.

After skin cancer, breast cancer has been cited as the most common cancer diagnosed in women across the world. Breast cancer can occur in both men and women, but it's far more common in women.

Women are better multitaskers than men, say studies. However, “the multitasker” needs to take care of her health too. Book a TruHealth Package today- specially designed for women.

Breast cancer awareness: The need of the hour

Breast cancer can begin in different parts of the breast. A breast is made up of three main parts: lobules, ducts, and connective tissue. The lobules are the glands that produce milk. The ducts are tubes that carry milk to the nipple. The connective tissue (which consists of fibrous and fatty tissue) surrounds and holds everything together. Most breast cancers begin in the ducts or lobules. Breast cancer can spread outside the breast through blood vessels and lymph vessels. When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is said to have metastasized.

Breast cancer symptoms

Though the symptoms can vary to some extent from person to person, and not all women experience all the symptoms, the most common symptoms of breast cancer include:  

  • Skin changes, such as swelling, redness, or other visible differences in one or both breasts
  • A lump or an increase in size or change in shape of the breast(s)
  • Discharge other than breast milk from nipples
  • Pain or ulceration in/on any part of the breast along with lumps or nodes felt on or
    inside of the breast

A study has reported that women aging above 40 with high cholesterol were 45% less likely to develop breast cancer than those without high cholesterol. Track your cholesterol levels from time to time.

What can you do to keep yourself safe from breast cancer?

A breast self-exam is a simple check-up which women can do at home to look for changes or problems in their breast. This method requires a woman to look at herself and feel each breast for possible lumps, distortions or swelling. With medical awareness being what it is today, many women around the world feel that doing this is important for their health.

When to do a breast self-exam?

The best time to do a breast self-exam is about 3 to 5 days after your period starts as breasts are not as tender or lumpy at this time of your monthly cycle. If you are pregnant, never had a period, no longer have periods or your period cycle is irregular, choose a specific day each month to perform your self-check. After menopause, try to do this on the same day every month. To prepare for your breast self-test, you can ask your doctor for a demonstration or seek support following the below given steps.

Steps to be followed while doing a breast self-examination

Step 1

Undress from the waist up and stand straight with your hands on your waist in front of a large mirror in a well lighted room. Observe your breasts; they might not be equal in size or shape and that’s perfectly okay. For most women that’s the case. Take your time and look for any changes in shape, size or position, or any change in skin around it. Check if there is any puckering, dimpling, sores or discoloration. The first time you do this, you might not notice anything but with regular examination you will soon know if there are any changes. If you notice any change, bulging of the skin, visible distortion or swelling, you should bring it to the notice of your doctor.

Check your nipples, examine them carefully for any sores, peeling or change in their direction- a nipple that has changed position or has redness, rash or swelling.

Strep 2

Raise your arms high and look for the same changes in the mirror. See if there is any sign of fluid coming out of any nipple, it can be watery, milky or yellowish fluid or even blood.

Step 3

Lie down on a bed and then touch your left breast with your right hand and vice versa. With the fingertip pads of your hand check your breast using a firm smooth circular motion. Examine the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side- from your collar bone to the top of your abdomen, from your armpit to your cleavage. Follow a pattern so as to cover the whole breast area. Start from the nipple, moving in larger and larger circles until you reach the outer edge of the breast.

Or as more women prefer, you can also move your finger pads up and down vertically, in rows like while you are mowing a lawn. Be sure to check all the tissues from the front to the back of your breast.

Step 4

Now feel your breasts while standing or sitting. You can even do this while your skin is wet and slippery in the shower. It’s a fact that many women prefer doing it in the shower. Cover your entire breast, using the same movements described in the previous step.

When you are self-examining yourself, do not panic if you feel a lump in your breast or other breast changes. There can be a number of causes behind this. It might be due to hormonal changes, a benign breast condition or an injury. On first self-examination many women might find lumps or lumpy areas in their breast but these are common amongst most women and they are not all cancerous. Moreover, many times, changes and lumps disappear automatically over a period of time. But if it persists for a long duration it’s better to consult a doctor and clear any doubts.

The more you examine your breasts the more you learn about them

And the easier it becomes for you to find any changes in them. Breast awareness is sometimes considered as an informal alternative to breast self-examination. Form a habit of doing a self-examination once a month so that you become familiar with how your breasts normally feel and look. Your goal is to get used to the feel of your breasts which will help you to detect any changes in them over a period of time. There are many conditions that can cause changes in your breast, cancer alone might not be the reason. But if you become familiar with your breast type, then it significantly increases the chances of discovering any lump formation or changes which might be the first sign of breast cancer.

Breast Cancer screening

It is believed that regularly examining your breasts on your own can be an important way to detect cancer early and get proper treatment. But at the same time one should not depend only on self-exam to rule out cancer. No single test can detect all breast cancer early but breast cancer organisations believe that performing a breast self-exam along with other screening methods can increase the odds of early detection. Regular physical examination by a doctor, mammography and if necessary ultrasound or MRI; all or any might be needed.

Apart from breast self-examination, your doctor might do a breast exam and refer to certain imaging tests to learn more about your breast.

  • Mammogram. This detailed X-ray gives doctors a better view of lumps and other problems.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This body scan helps create detailed images of the insides of your breasts.
  • Biopsy. For this test, the doctor removes tissue or fluid from your breast and looks at it under a microscope to check for cancer cells and, if they’re there, learn which type they are. Common procedures include:
    • Fine-needle aspiration
    • Core-needle biopsy
    • Surgical (open) biopsy
    • Lymph node biopsy
    • Image-guided biopsy

Bottomline
Breast self-exam is the most convenient no-cost tool that one can use regularly anytime and at any age. It is recommended that all women who are at an average risk or have a family history of cancer, perform breast self-exam as part of their overall breast cancer screening strategy.

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