There is lots of information out there on how to detect potential cancer in your breasts. However, there is less on what to do or how you may feel if you find something abnormal.
If you are a man and are thinking of stopping reading this post as it is irrelevant to you, don’t! Men get breast cancer and abnormalities too. As such, you should be equally aware of what to look out for, especially if you have a history of breast cancer in your family.
“A Breast Cancer Care survey found nearly three-quarters (73%) of men don’t check their breasts for signs and symptoms of breast cancer, even though the same number (73%) are aware that they can get the disease” (Breast Cancer Care, 2017).
How – ‘TLC’ (Touch, Look, Check). Have a feel, look in the mirror (with your arms both up and down), and look for obvious asymmetry like puckering, dimpling, size or texture changes. You should also be sure to check anything you are unsure of with your GP.
Many women and men shy away from breast self-examination as they feel they don’t know what they are looking for. Our advice is, keep it simple – there is no right or wrong way.
- Sit, stand or lay down
- You can do this either in the ‘shower’ or once you are dry
- It is often easier to lift your arm over your head for better access and to tighten the skin
- Use your four finger tips on whatever hand is comfortable and feel firmly
- Feel in all directions, up and down in vertical lines, in circles radiating out from the nipple and in diagonal lines across the breast and arm pit
- Don’t forget the nipple. Give your nipple a gentle squeeze between your finger and thumb to see if there is any discharge.
- Sometimes (if checking whilst laid down) something may be more obvious with your knees over to one side as this stretches the tissue in a different way. Don’t get hung up on this.
- The idea is to get to know what is normal for you, so if anything new does appear you can recognise quickly and have it examined
When – Roughly the same time every month, yet if you suffer breast tenderness around your menstrual cycle, schedule your self-check around five days after your period. There are lots of apps out there to give you a little reminder to self-check or better still, keep it simple and schedule for the first day of every month.
Now what – The issue arises when you find something. The first thing to do is to not panic. This can be easier said than done, but many breast abnormalities are completely benign (non-cancerous). However, all abnormalities should be checked with your GP.
If you are over 30 your GP may send you to your local breast clinic for further investigations, usually within two weeks. This may involve an examination by a specialist, ultrasound, mammogram and in some cases a fine needle biopsy to take a sample or similar device to drain any large cysts. It is normal to feel frightened, tearful, angry or to even ruminate on the worst outcomes during these times. The best thing to do is stay relaxed, tensing up during any of these tests can make them more uncomfortable or can lead to your emotions spiralling out of control.
Is it cancer? – Wait until you have your test results, in a lot of cases your clinician will be able to tell you the same day what kind of abnormality it is. If you are having a biopsy you may have to wait around one week for your results.
The most common abnormalities
Fibrocystic breast changes – This tissue can feel quite rubbery and firm. The ‘cystic’ part are cysts which are small fluid filled sacs. Cysts can fluctuate in size around your cycle. You may have one large cyst or many very small cysts which can be tender to the touch. A clinician will diagnose and possibly drain these via an ultrasound.
Fibroadenomas – Often a firm lump that moves around easily in the breast. These are more common in younger women.
Mastitis – This is usually an infection and may cause a painful collection of pus or a painful red swelling. In some cases, women may feel unwell and have a fever. Your GP may prescribe you antibiotics for this. This can happen at any point but is most common during breast feeding when a duct becomes blocked. Blocked ducts can often feel like a thick pencil line radiating from the nipple.
Nipple discharge – This can occur for a variety of reasons such as infection, hormonal issues, blocked ducts or a tumour. The fluid can also be a variety of colours depending on the issue. Be sure to make a note of this before you see your GP.
Tumour (less common) – These can be either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). The only way to tell is to have a sample tested in the laboratory. Tumours often feel like a pea sized (in some cases larger if they have been missed) lump, asymmetrical, which is hard and unmoving. They can also be painful, but not always. If it is cancer remember in the UK 78% of people survive for 10 years or more after diagnosis. The key is early detection.
All the issues listed above require further investigation from your GP. Knowing your own body is the best way to help you stay calm during the investigations and to help provide the medical professionals with the right information, i.e. “the issue is painful to the touch and flares up around the first day of my period”.
After a scare, it’s best to keep up with your monthly checks and to get to know your normal with these new changes. Most of all, don’t shy away from going back to your GP if you spot another abnormality. In all cases, whether it is cancer or a benign abnormality, you should never feel embarrassed or like a time waster for reporting your concerns. Reporting is the right thing to do! For uncomfortable benign abnormalities, many women find the best relief is to wear a good quality sports bra and take a high dose of primrose oil and/or star flower oil.
Remember – 27% of breast cancers are preventable! You can take measures to reduce your risk with a healthy diet (plenty of fruit and veg), 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week and reducing your alcohol intake to no more than 14 units per week (spread over a minimum of three days).
If you don’t have a medical degree, don’t guess! If in doubt, have it checked out.
Have all new changes to your breast tissue checked with your GP without delay.