Knowing how to check for breast cancer could save your life. Early detection is key to treating this devastating illness, so get to know what's normal for your breasts and check them regularly.
By doing a simple home health check you'll learn what normal means for you and easily spot changes. If you do see a change, no matter how small you think it might be, contact your doctor for further medical advice. The American Cancer Society estimates over 280,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2021, while in the UK the NHS reports 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Most women diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 50, but this doesn't mean younger women cannot get the disease, too. No matter your age or family history, it's important you check your breasts regularly.
To help you understand the early signs of breast cancer and the lesser-known signs of breast cancer to look out for, and learn how to check for breast cancer and do a self-exam from the comfort of your own home, we spoke to the experts.
How to check for breast cancer at home
"Thankfully, only a small percentage of breast lumps turn out to be cancerous," says Dr Samatha Wild, Women's Health Lead at Bupa Health Clinics. However, there are a number of symptoms to look out for when performing your self-exam at home that could signal early stages of breast cancer. And with one million women missing breast cancer screenings due to the pandemic, as reported in 2020, it's now more vital than ever to check your breasts at home.
To perform a breast exam you need to:
- Touch—with flat fingers feel around your breast tissue for anything new or unusual such as a lump or swelling.
- Look—in the mirror, check if your breasts look different from your normal such as puckering or nipple inversion.
- Check—if you do spot any unusual changes or notice anything new, check these with your doctor.
Signs and symptoms to look out for when checking your breasts can be seen in the video above, created by prevention charity Breast Cancer UK, and include:
- A new lump on the breast, under the armpit, or around the collarbone
- Discharge from the nipple
- Red, dry, flaking, or thickened skin on the breast or nipple
- Dimpling of the skin of the breast
- Breast pain (although breast pain alone is unlikely to be a symptom of cancer and could be down to hormonal changes, you should still check this with your doctor)
- Changes in size or shape, or swelling of the breast
- Nipple turning in
How to do a breast self-exam in 10 steps
You can check your breasts in the shower, in front of the mirror, or while getting changed—do whatever feels most comfortable for you. Make it part of your morning or bedtime routine.
How to perform a breast self-exam:
- Find a place that's comfortable for you, but you may find it easiest in front of a mirror
- Look at the size and shape of your breasts with your arms by your sides
- Look at the size and shape of your breasts with your arms behind your head
- Place your hands on your hips, bend forward slightly and look at your breasts in a mirror
- Notice if there's a change in appearance (skin dimpling, red patches, nipple discharge, change in direction of nipple)
- Standing straight, with one arm behind your head, use the opposite hand with flat fingers to feel for lumps. Move in circular motions around the skin of your breast and across your nipple
- Repeat on the other size
- Move your hand towards your collarbone and under your armpits to feel for lumps or swelling
- Check each area for pain or tenderness
- If you notice any changes or spot any of the symptoms above, contact your doctor for medical advice
How often should you check your breasts?
Check your breasts as regularly as you like so you get to know what 'normal' is for you. "Do it as often as you need to ensure you feel confident that if there were any changes, you'd pick them up quickly," says Dr Wild.
However, Mr Dimitri J Hadjiminas, Consultant Breast & Endocrine Surgeon at The Harley Street Clinic, says you should check your breasts at least once a month and at the same time in your menstrual cycle.
"Be mindful your breasts will change during your monthly cycle, pregnancy, and menopause," adds Dr Wild.
Breast cancer screenings in the UK
In the UK, women are offered a breast cancer screening when they turn 50 years old until their 71st birthday and are invited every three years. The NHS says if women are over 71 years old, they will no longer receive screening invitations but can still request a breast screening.
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The screening involves taking a mammogram of each breast one at a time at different angles. During the screening, your breast will be placed in an X-ray machine and gently compressed with a plate.
You'll receive your results in a letter to your home address within two weeks. If your screening showed something abnormal, you'll be invited back for further tests such as an MRI. This does not mean you have cancer, as mammograms aren't 100% accurate and can show false results.
They can also miss important changes to your breast tissue, which is why even after you've had a mammogram, it's important to check your breasts regularly. For more information about what happens during a mammogram in the UK, visit the NHS website or speak to your doctor.
Breast cancer screenings in the US
The United States Preventative Services Task Force recommends American women aged between 50 years old and 74 years old have a mammogram every two years.
Similarly, in the US breast screenings are done via mammogram. However, for those who are at a high risk of getting breast cancer, because of family history or previous health issues, an MRI may be used alongside a mammogram.
Book an appointment at your doctor's office for your screening. The CBD reports most health insurance companies are required to cover screening mammograms for women. Check your policy and get booked in!
If you're concerned about any changes to your breasts, contact your doctor for further advice.
For more information about breast cancer and further support see:
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention
- CoopaFeel! Boob Check 101
- MacMillan Cancer Support
- National Breast Cancer Foundation
- Breast Cancer Now: The research & care charity
woman&home thanks Dr Samantha Wild, Women’s Health Lead, at Bupa Health Clinics and Mr Dimitri J Hadjiminas MD, MPhil, FRCS, Consultant Breast & Endocrine Surgeon at The Harley Street Clinic and the experts at Breast Cancer UK for their time and expertise.
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Ciara McGinley is a meditation practitioner and health journalist. She qualified as a meditation teacher with the British School of Meditation in 2020 and is the founder of Finding Quiet, a series of classes, workshops and retreats that combine meditation practices and mindfulness techniques to make mindful living realistic in an always-switched-on modern world. She is all about bettering that mind-body connection but believes wellness looks different to everyone.
Ciara is also the former Health Channel Editor at woman&home and has covered all things health and wellbeing for years, from fitness to sleep to relationships.
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