There is no doubt the key to beating breast cancer is through early diagnosis. Globally, breast cancer affects more women than any other form of cancer. In Australia, it ranks second only to non-melanoma skin cancer. The good news is that, in Australia, 89% of women survive five years or more after a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer.
Breast cancer awareness month (October)
As with any form of cancer, the earlier it is detected, the better the outlook is. With that in mind, make the most of breast cancer awareness month by learning the risk factors and how to self-check.
Breast cancer risk factors
Some risk factors are genetic and therefore, effectively, unavoidable. There are, however, some lifestyle factors and some environmental factors, which can influence your likelihood of getting breast cancer.
Lifestyle factors include:
- excess weight
- processed meats
There is a convincing link between breast cancer and both excess weight and alcohol consumption. There is a suggestive link between breast cancer and tobacco, processed meats and shift work. It is, however, important to note that there is a convincing link between tobacco and many other serious illnesses, including lung cancer.
Some occupations are linked to increased breast cancer risk. Specific on-the-job exposures, such as ionising radiation, light-at-night or solvents, may increase risk.
Finding breast cancer early
The best way to find breast cancer early is to check for it regularly. Ideally, this will involve a combination of scheduled mammograms and self-checks.
Self-checks should be undertaken at least once a month. This ensures that you have a decent chance of detecting issues early. It also ensures that you remain familiar with the look and feel of your breasts so that you recognise any changes.
Changes to look for when checking yourself
The main changes to look for are:
- changes to the texture of the skin
Checking for lumps
The easiest way to check for lumps is generally in the shower. Be sure to check the whole breast area (including the armpit) using light, medium and firm pressure in turn.
Checking for changes to the texture of the skin
The easiest way to check for changes to the texture of the skin is to stand in front of a mirror. Make sure that the lighting is in front of you, otherwise, the changes might be hidden by shadows.
Check yourself with your arms by your sides, flexed on your hips and raised above your head. Look for any signs of discolouration, swelling or dimpling or any unusual contours in the skin, especially around the nipple.
Checking for discharge
The easiest way to check for discharge is to lie on your back with a pillow supporting one side of your body. Raise the arm on that side so it’s above your head (but resting on a support, such as your bed) and use the other arm to check your breast.
Essentially, you want to apply light, medium and firm pressure in turn and see how your breast responds. In particular, you’re looking for signs of discharge. This can also be a good opportunity to double-check for lumps.
If you find any changes or have any concerns, book an appointment ASAP with your GP.
If you live in NSW or ACT, ask your GP for a referral to Sydney Breast Clinic for same day diagnosis.