As with all cancers, breast cancer occurs when the cells in your body divide without stopping and then spread into tissue. The cells in your breast tissue can form a cancerous tumor.
After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women, according to the American Cancer Society, and it is the second-leading cause of cancer death in women.
The best screening for women comes from yearly mammograms, starting at age 45 (or optionally starting at age 40-44, if a woman chooses) and from mammograms every other year starting at age 55, as recommended by the ACS. It’s often recommended that women at high risk of breast cancer get an MRI along with a yearly mammogram.
Beyond a mammogram, it’s important to know what is normal for your breasts so that if you notice any changes, you can speak to your doctor right away. One way to do this is by performing a self-exam every month or so — this should not replace screenings but can help you stay familiar with how your breasts regularly look and feel.
Make it simple by doing the self-exam when showering, brushing your teeth or while lying in bed. Here’s how to perform a breast self-exam:
Do a visual inspection
You’ll do this inspection twice, once with your arms at your sides, and then with your arms raised high above your head. You’re looking for a few things:
- Changes in the contour of your breasts
- Redness, soreness, swelling or a rash
- Skin dimpling, puckering or bulging
- Changes in the nipples, such as one that has changed position or is pushed inward instead of out
Perform a physical inspection
Do this inspection twice as well – once while standing and then once while lying down. Both times, use the pads of your fingers to feel for lumps, knots or thickening. Move in a circular motion over the entire breast and armpit area on each side, so you cover from your armpit to the center of your chest and from your collarbone to the top of your stomach.
Finally, gently squeeze each nipple to check for discharge or lumps.
Record your observations
If it will be too difficult to recognize any changes between self-exams, consider recording what you see and feel, so it will be easy to notice differences. Snap a photo or jot a few notes about your self-exam in a journal.
Make a doctor’s appointment
Beyond your yearly screenings, make an appointment only if you find something unusual, such as discharge or a lump that sticks around for more than one menstrual cycle. If you feel a lump that goes away, don’t stress. If you feel a lump that doesn’t go away, you likely are still in the clear but you should get it checked out.
“Don’t panic if you think you feel a lump,” according to breastcancer.org. “Most women have some lumps or lumpy areas in their breasts all the time. In the United States, only 20 percent of women who have a suspicious lump biopsied turn out to have breast cancer.”
If it does turn out to be breast cancer, catching it early makes it easier to fight.
“Finding breast cancer early and getting state-of-the-art cancer treatment are the most important strategies to prevent deaths from breast cancer,” according to the American Cancer Society. “Breast cancer that’s found early, when it’s small and has not spread, is easier to treat successfully.”
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