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How to check your breasts for signs of cancer

Most women are aware that it's important to regularly check their breasts for any changes that could indicate breast cancer. But have you thought about whether you're checking your breasts correctly? And what should you be looking out for?

How often should I check my breasts?

Women should check their breasts frequently for changes. As we're all different, it's important to get to know how your breasts feel and to have an idea of what's normal for you. For women of childbearing age, it's also important to be aware of the stage you're at in your menstrual cycle when you check.

"Get to know what your breasts feel like at different times of your cycle, if you’re still having periods," agrees Dr Carol Cooper. "Breasts can feel very different on the lead up to your period to afterwards."

"The hormones that may affect the breasts in women before menopause drop after menopause," adds Eluned Hughes, head of Public Health and Information at Breast Cancer Now. "However, postmenopausal women should still check their breasts regularly."

Women between the ages of 50 and 70 should also be invited for mammograms under the NHS Breast Screening Programme every three years. As these can identify cancerous growths when they are too small to feel or see, it's crucial that women attend, in addition to carrying out regular breast checks.

Sitting or standing?

As most women will be aware, the shape of your breasts will change depending on whether you’re sitting up or lying down. So, what's the best position for performing a thorough check?

"It's better to stand up at the start, and use a mirror to check to see whether the outline is the same on both sides, or note any skin changes," advises Cooper. "If you get changes below the nipple, for example, you might not see them without a mirror."

"You can also use the mirror to check for any changes in the look or outline of the breast."

Cooper advises that the remainder of the check should be performed lying down. "This spreads the tissue more evenly over the chest, so it's easier to feel," she explains.

What should I look out for?

When we think about breast cancer signs, most of us probably picture a lump in the breast. But in fact, breast cancer may present in a number of different ways.

“As well as a lump, you need to look out for a red area in the nipple, a change in the nipple's position or turning in of a nipple that previously pointed out, a rash, an indentation, a thickening or a bumpy area," explains Cooper. "You may also notice a change in the feel or outline of the breast, or experience nipple discharge or bleeding."

"One of the more unusual symptoms is a red or inflamed breast which may be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer which is quite rare but can be quite aggressive," adds Hughes.

It's also important to be aware that breast tissue reaches further than you might imagine.

"Breast tissue extends into your armpits and as high as your collarbone," explains Hughes. "So make sure you check in these areas."

When should I see my GP?

Finding a change in your breast can be frightening. But it's important to remember that the majority of breast changes reported to GPs aren't serious. That said, it's important that any areas of concern aren't dismissed and you visit your doctor for advice, reassurance or further testing. Breast cancer testing may consist of a mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy, or genetic testing.

"Most changes are not cancer," explains Cooper. "However, whilst it’s important not to panic, it's also important to ensure that any breast changes are investigated."

Getting in the habit

Of course, whilst most of us intend to check our breasts regularly, not everyone gets around to it.

"We know one of the reasons that women don't necessarily check regularly is that they forget - we've all got things to do," explains Hughes.

Try recording your breast check day in your diary, or setting a reminder on your phone. Alternatively, Breast Cancer Now has an APP called Breast Check Now which will do the remembering for you.

What about men?

Although breast cancer is a predominantly female disease with around 54,800 UK women diagnosed each year, it can also occur in men. According to Cancer Research UK, about 390 men are diagnosed with this type of cancer each year in the UK.

"Whilst men do not need to carry out specific checks on themselves, as breast cancer in men is quite rare, they should be aware that they can be affected, and make sure they report anything noticeable to their GP," advises Hughes.

Early detection saves lives

None of us likes to think about cancer, but women who check their breasts regularly are more likely to spot any signs at an early stage. The good news is that breast cancer, if caught at Stage 1 now has an amazing survival rate. According to Cancer Research UK, 99% of women diagnosed at the earliest stage (Stage 1) will survive for five years or more.

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