If you’re a woman who’s very sensitive about your body and the thought of someone invading your personal space is enough to make you feel uncomfortable, the breast exam may be the most uncomfortable part about your annual check-up. As much as I understand why doctors need to do it, it feels weird having a doctor you’ve just met thoroughly press at your breasts in search of a lump.
The last time I did a check-up, the doctor did a breast check in less than a minute. She asked if I did self-checks myself and, being a person who never lied to a doctor, I said I don’t check for lumps. I got an earful from her, saying I had to do a self-check at least once a month to be safe and detect possible breast cancer signs early.
I knew very little about breast cancer, and all I knew about self-checks was that if you ever felt a weird lump in your breast, it was a sign you needed to get checked. After my check-up, I did my research on it and realized how serious breast cancer was for women. Self-checks may feel awkward for some, but if you do have breast cancer, doing a self-check may be what can save you before the cancer spreads too far.
So, if you aren’t performing quick self-checks on yourself at least once a month, here’s why you should start.
Let’s Talk Breast Cancer
Out of all the various types of cancers, breast cancer is the most common type that women can develop. It’s also the second main cause of cancer-related deaths among women, the first being lung cancer. It’s a serious issue that claims the lives of one in 37 women every year. In 2017, at least 250,000 cases of breast cancer were diagnosed, and over 40,000 women are likely to die because of it. Men are also at risk of breast cancer, but it is more common in women.
There’s no clear cause as to what causes breast cancer. Some medical researchers found that age and genetics increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer, while preventable practices such as body weight, alcohol consumption, and occupational hazards may also cause cancer.
Stages and Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Like other forms of cancer, breast cancer develops in various stages. Slowly, cancer cells start to spread to nearby cells and tissues. Once it reaches bones and vital organs, it reaches stage 4, during which the cancers have spread and formed and created secondary cancers. Because your breast is close to vital organs such as your lungs, heart, and liver, you risk letting the cancer spread if you don’t regularly check for symptoms and constantly ignore the symptoms you experience.
Once it reaches this stage, the patient is unlikely to be completely cured, though treatment can help shrink the cancer cells or manage the pain. During this stage, most people opt for hospice care over actual treatment.
Stage 4 breast cancer doesn’t happen overnight, though. Symptoms of breast cancer include pain in the armpits or breast, bloody breast discharge, flaking skin by the nipple, and a change in size of the breast. The pain and physical appearance of your breast, as well as performing self-checks can help you detect possible breast cancer at the earliest stages.
There are some breast lumps that aren’t cancerous, so if you feel a lump during a self-check, remain calm and see a doctor who can help determine if it is cancerous. Your doctor will perform diagnostic tests to determine what it is. This will include a breast exam to double-check your findings.
Next, you may be asked to perform a mammogram (a special x-ray used for initial breast cancer screening) and an ultrasound (to determine if it’s a cancerous mass or a fluid-filled cyst). However, mammograms are not always accurate, so a biopsy (doctors take a tissue sample of your breast to check if it cancerous) may help determine the type of tumor and the best treatment for it. If it turns out to be cancerous, an MRI scan can help determine how far the cancer has spread.
Because there is no clear cause for breast cancer, there’s no recommended way to prevent breast cancer except by living a healthy lifestyle. However, since breast cancer may be genetic or more likely for older women, there’s no assurance that living a healthy lifestyle can totally prevent developing breast cancer.
Going to a doctor once a month for a simple check is impractical and time-consuming. It only takes a minute to check your breasts for lumps, and you can do it in the privacy of your own home. And by doing it monthly, you can detect breast cancer at its earliest stages.
There’s also the stress and anxiety of getting a regular mammogram. The reason why some doctors prefer an invasive biopsy over a mammogram is because mammograms aren’t totally accurate. If a mammogram showed you had suspicious findings even if you didn’t have cancer, your stress may cause physical and mental distress on your body, which could lead to other problems.
According to the John Hopkins Medical Center, around 40 percent of women who were diagnosed with breast cancer performed a self-check, which is why they were able to visit a doctor to confirm their symptoms.
How to Perform a Breast Self-Check
You can do this anywhere private such as in the shower or in your bedroom, but it’s best to have a mirror in front of you when you do this. Start by pressing your finger pads (the place where your fingerprints are) against your breast in a circular pattern. Start from the outermost part and then make your way to the center. I recommend your starting point be at the armpit area so that it covers the entire breast area in an efficient circle.
Check for lumps, knots, or thick areas that do not feel normal or similar to the rest of your tissue. If you feel any of these, have it checked by your doctor.
Next, use a mirror to inspect the physical appearance of your breasts. If there is an irregular color, swelling, dimpling, or anything that looks out of the ordinary, it may be a sign of cancer and needs medical consultation.
Take note that not all breasts have the same size, so if it seems normal except for one breast being bigger than the other, it’s normal. However, significantly unequal breasts could lower your self-esteem and give you body issues. This is also a concern you can talk to your doctor about if you’re willing to undergo surgery to correct it.
INSERT VIDEO ON HOW TO DO SELF EXAM
If you haven’t made self-exams a monthly habit, now is the time to start. Simply taking a few minutes of your time to check if your breasts are normal may be a habit that takes time to get used to, but if you have a high risk for developing breast cancer, it can mean the difference between a simple procedure to remove bad tissue, having to remove all your breast tissue, or having to undergo extensive cancer treatment.