Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the UK, with over 50,000 women being diagnosed every year. Around 350 men are also diagnosed with breast cancer annually.
Although the body positivity movement has been somewhat successful in encouraging women to feel more comfortable in their own skin, many women are still not in tune with their bodies and spend a minimal amount of time looking at it. But with 1 in 8 women developing breast cancer at some point in their lives, it is vitally important that women regularly check their breasts and spend time getting to know their own anatomy and what is normal for them, so that they are hyper-aware of any changes.
Most breast cancers are detected by people being ‘breast aware’ and taking the initiative to see their GP if they notice anything unusual. A woman’s breasts undergo many changes across her lifetime, so many people can brush off their symptoms as insignificant or just assume it is a natural part of their development. Some changes can be so small that they can easily go undetected without closer inspection. Some common early warning signs to look out for are:
- Lump – it may be visible or can just be felt beneath the skin
- Change to size or shape – one breast can be larger or lower than the other
- Change to skin texture – skin may look puckered or dimpled
- Colour change – breast can look red or become inflamed
- Change in nipples – change in size, shape or colour? Has it become inverted?
- Nipple discharge – unusual discharge from nipple
- Rash or crusting – particularly around the nipple area
- Persistent pain – although not necessarily a symptom in itself, if you notice any unusual or persistent pain in your breasts, get them checked to be safe as it could be associated with another symptom
When checking, follow the TLC rule – touch, look, check, and remember that breast tissue includes not only the breast itself, but the upper chest and armpit. It is so easy to make a habit of, it takes less than 5 minutes and could save your life.
The main risk factors for developing breast cancer are age and gender. Women over the age of 50 are much more likely to develop breast cancer, so free mammograms are offered to try and detect cancer early before it fully develops. Although you can’t help being a woman or getting older, there are some lifestyle choices that may affect your risk factor. Some lifestyle factors that increase the risk are:
- Alcohol – drinking alcohol on a regular basis increases your risk of breast cancer, the more you drink, the more at risk you are. Southampton researchers are trying to raise awareness of this at screenings and clinics.
- Weight – putting on weight in adulthood and being overweight or obese after the menopause increases your risk.
- The Pill – being on the contraceptive pill only slightly increases your risk of breast cancer, but this quickly decreases once you stop taking it. (This is the same for Hormone Replacement Therapy or ‘HRT’). It must be noted that breast cancer in younger women is rare, and the majority of pill users are in their teens, twenties and thirties.
- Pregnancy – the risk of developing breast cancer increases slightly after a woman gives birth, no matter their age. This is likely to be due to hormone changes, however this decreases after a few years. Overall, pregnancy reduces the risk of developing breast cancer. The more children a woman has, and the younger she starts a family, the greater the decrease in risk. Staying physically active, especially after the menopause, and breast feeding can also slightly reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.