October carries many different associations depending on who you ask, but for most it signals the start of Pumpkin Spice lattes, jumpers and layering, Halloween and the countdown to Christmas. However, it is also a month that aims to raise awareness of breast cancer, something that claims the lives of over 11,000 people in the UK every year.
Whilst many of us will have been affected by cancer in some way, often by either a family member of close relatives or friends having been diagnosed, the gravity of a breast cancer diagnosis was bought home for me when last year a colleague of my mother’s sadly lost her battle with it after being diagnosed for a second time and facing treatment, something that the entire maternity unit (of my mother’s workplace) felt. However, it wasn’t just her tragic passing that brought it home, but also the fact that my mum turned to me and said that she wasn’t the first. In such a female-dominated workplace like a maternity unit, I quickly learned that my mother had lost many a colleague and friend to breast cancer but also seen many conquer it. That’s what hit me.
The number of women surviving their disease beyond ten years has doubled since 1970, increasing from 4 to 8 in 10 women, but having a marked increase in the likelihood of surviving this cancer is dependent on finding it early and therefore treating it before it progresses. Only 3 in 20 women survive the disease for 5 or more years when caught at the latest stage, compared to all women surviving it for the same time if diagnosed in its earliest stage. Due to the marked increase in survival rates when diagnosed early, its clear that knowing what to look out for and seeking out medical consultation when we are worried or unsure is the best course of action – something that should be integrated into our educations from a young age, not just in the month of October.
Personally I was never taught to check my breasts, or how to know what was normal for my body and when to seek medical advice, resulting in me ignoring a large 2.5 inch lump in my right breast for years, only to have it removed in an operation on my 16th birthday. Luckily it was completely benign and nothing to worry about, but had it not been removed I would’ve gone on for a lot longer thinking it was nothing of concern. The solution to this? Learning what normal breasts feel and look like for you and doing regular examinations.
If there is one thing everyone can do, man and woman, to help spread awareness and hopefully increase early diagnosis of breast cancer ,it is simply to learn how to examine your breasts. Once you know that, you know what is abnormal and when to consult a medical professional.
Here are my top tips:
- Set a date for your self-examination. The easiest way to do this is just to decide that the 1st of every month is the day you check your breasts and even put it in to your calendar to remind yourself. This way you shouldn’t miss any months and, especially if you take note of what you feel, will be able to identify when something feels/looks irregular.
- Learn how to examine! I never really knew if what I was doing was the right way to go about my examination, but over the years I think I’ve cracked it. Of course seek advice from NHS and breast cancer charities, as well as your local doctors, but this is what I do.
- Look in the mirror with your hands by your side and face on, and simply look to see if you can notice anything different (the texture of the skin, any changes in the nipple, the shape of one or both of them). Do the same but facing side on, so you can see the right and left breast clearly.
- Place your hands on the back of the neck and repeat, looking from all angles. Doing this will help you to notice any visual changes to the breast but also around the underarm area.
- Put your hands on your hips and push your shoulders forward. This will help to show any breast tissue that may have changed and repeat this visual examination looking from all angles.
- With your left hand on the back of your neck, use the right hand to feel, with the flat of your middle three fingers, the left breast. Work your way on the whole breast (it helps if you think of your breast in quarters and work each quarter), as well as the nipple. Then feel up towards your collar bone and down again, and towards your underarm.
- Repeat that with the alternate arm and breast.
- Don’t worry if you aren’t sure. Your GP is there to help you and the last thing they want is you, as their patient, worrying about your health. Go and see them, ask them to examine or refer you, and don’t be afraid to ask any questions you may have.
- For women, learn your menstrual cycle. Many breast changes occur during a woman’s menstrual cycle and knowing when these are likely to happen can help you identify what’s normal for your breasts at different points in the month and will help you to filter out what you should ignore and what is a cause for concern.
- Finally, don’t worry. Not every lump means cancer and being aware of that should help to ease any stress if you do notice anything different. Many women get benign lumps, referred to as fibroadenomas, as well as cysts, which can be drained. However, if something concerns you or feels different, contact your GP, and don’t self-diagnose.