Ladies, don’t be afraid to cop a feel once in a while – preferably once a month.
When Angelina Jolie discovered that she had the genetically inherited BRCA1 gene, which placed her at an estimated 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer, she decided to undergo a preventive double mastectomy. Jolie described her decision and the process in a New York Times Op-Ed article titled “My Medical Choice.” A celebrity undergoing such a procedure will always make news, but knowing that Jolie’s choice was entirely for preventive measures puts the early detection and awareness of breast cancer under a new light.
Dr. Cecilia Grande, a gynecologist at Mercy Hospital in Miami, Fla., said, while the best form of early detection is a mammography, women don’t usually begin regular screenings until the age of 40. Until then, becoming familiar with your breasts is a good start. “Though, we tell patients not to do it every day because they freak out,” Grande said.
A monthly breast self-examination will help you become more aware of your body, so if something does feel strange, you will be able to identify it instead of freaking out over every bump (which are normal).
Where and when to start
The best time to examine yourself is in the shower after your period. Grande, who examines about 20 breasts a day, said that soap decreases surface tension and makes it easier to detect any lumps. “People not to do exams a week before their period because it’s going to be excessively lumpy and tender,” she said. “Cycles of patients are not the same for everyone.” Once you are reaching the end of your cycle and bleeding is minimal, that’s the ideal time.
There are different ways to carry out a breast self-exam. The American Cancer Society recommends lying on your back with a pillow underneath the shoulder of the side you will be examining, and the arm of that side behind your head. With the opposite hand, feel the area from the collarbone to the middle of the chest and from the collarbone to the ribcage. Use the tips of your three middle fingers to make small circular movements applying different levels of pressure to feel different parts of the breast. Light pressure can identify tissue that’s closest to the surface, while medium pressure feels a little deeper below and firm pressure for the tissue closest to your chest muscles.
Grande said either traveling your fingers around clockwise from the outside to the inside of the breast or dividing the breast into four quadrants and checking each smaller section individually is OK. The point of a breast self-exam is to get to know how your breasts feel, so whatever movements will help you memorize from month-to-month is up to you.
Chances are you wont be lying down in the shower with a pillow (or maybe you will, but that’s up to you), so don’t forget to get your hands sudsy.
You can also give yourself an exam standing up in the shower, but make sure to mimic the position of laying down by putting the arm of the side you will be examining behind your head like a dramatic shampoo commercial and feel away!
The exam isn’t over yet. When looking at your breasts from above, you might not see something that you would see in the mirror,” Grande said.
You can look in front of a mirror and check to see if there’s any change in size or shape both directly under and in the front of the breast.
What to look out for
Grande said women should look out for any “persistent pain, any discharge and any lumps with pain.” Lumps, however, are a common source for women freaking out but in most cases they are normal.
“It’s very common for people to have fibrocystic breasts,” Grande said. “Some people are naturally lumpy.”
These lovely lady lumps scare women because they were previously tied to the word “disease,” but according to MayoClinic.com, “medical professionals have stopped using the term ‘fibrocystic breast disease’ and now simply refer to ‘fibrocystic breasts’ or ‘fibrocystic breast changes’ because having fibrocystic breasts isn't really a disease.” You can breathe now.
However, if you’ve been giving yourself a breast exam every month for a couple of months and notice some painful new lump or increased thickening of the breast, you’ve justified your worriment and can go see a doctor.
“Malignancies usually don’t give you any pain,” Grande said. “If it’s big and tender and hurts, we tell patients to go to the doctor. It’s usually fluid accumulating, and the surrounding tissue hurts.”
Finally, check the nipple for any discharge or fluid. If you are not breastfeeding or pregnant and see fluid, report the change to your doctor.
At some point in time, misconceptions formed for the sole reason of causing paranoia among women, but you can now throw those misconceptions away. Please, get your wire bra out from the trash.
“Wearing wires cannot cause breast cancer,” Grande said. “Wear wires because if not, they would just be sagging.”
You can also examine yourself if you have breast implants because most implants are below the breast tissue, so you can still feel the same tissue a breast self-exam calls for.
Weight and cup-size have nothing to do with the chances of developing breast cancer; most of the indicating factors are family history.
“If someone is very thin and has little boobs, it doesn’t increase or decrease their chances (of developing breast cancer),” Grande said.
For women on birth control, starting a new pill could lead to breast tenderness on both breasts. “Bilateral breast engorgement is common because the body is getting used to that particular hormone,” Grande said.
After a few months of getting to know your breasts better, you will be able to identify if there truly is something different. Although breast self-examinations are an active way of taking knowledge about your breasts to better be aware of any changes, Grande said that a mammography is the best form of prevention and early detection.
“Mammos can detect a tumor three years before you can palpate it,” she said. “Breast exams are good, but by the time you feel it, we could have seen it three years before.”