Here's why monitoring breast health should be part of every woman's routine.
What should you know about your breasts?
Breasts can be big or small, any shape, and nipples can stick outwards or sometimes be inverted (turned inwards). Hormonal changes can occasionally cause lumpiness and tenderness from month to month and this is all perfectly normal.
Don't only older women get breast cancer?
No; 7,000 pre-menopausal women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Though the risk is relatively small, on average one in every 15,000 women under 25 will develop breast cancer. The likelihood of developing the disease rises sharply in those between the ages of 25-30 (one case in every 1,900 women). But don't panic; breast cancer remains rare in women under 40. For women, age is the biggest factor involved in developing breast cancer. Over 80% of reported breast cancer cases in the UK are in women over the age of 50.
What about men?
Unfortunately blokes can get breast cancer too, but again, it is extremely rare. Only 200 men in the UK develop breast cancer each year. However, the illness is more likely to prove fatal than in women, mainly due to late diagnosis, as men are often too embarrassed to see their GP early on. The main symptom to look out for is a lump in the breast, and less common symptoms include: nipple discharge (often blood strained); nipple retraction; and swollen lymph glands under the arm. Most men who develop breast cancer are over 60.
What can you do to prevent breast cancer?
Many factors slightly increase the risk of a woman having breast cancer. These include: being on the contraceptive pill for a prolonged period; being very overweight; pregnancy (temporarily); and genetic factors (history of breast cancer in the family).
Research is being carried out into how diet affects breast health, but few real conclusions have been drawn so far. It is thought that avoiding fatty dairy products and eating low fat cheese, yogurt and semi-skimmed milk are beneficial, along with maintaining a balanced diet. Research does show, however, that regular exercise can help to lower your risk by around a third.
Should I check my breasts anyway?
Breast Cancer Care recommends being aware of these breast irregularities:
- A change in breast size, e.g. one breast becoming noticeably bigger or lower than the other
- A nipple becoming inverted, or changed in its position or shape
- A rash on or around the nipples
- Discharge from one or both nipples
- Puckering or dimpling of the skin
- Swelling under the armpit or around collarbone (in lymph node area)
- Lump or thickening in the breast that feels different from the rest of the breast tissue
- Constant pain in one area of the breast or in the armpit
Now follow 'the breast awareness 5-point code':
- Know what is normal for you
- Know what changes to look and feel for
- Look and feel
- Report any changes to your GP without delay
- Attend a routine breast screening if you are 50 or over
What if I find a lump/other irregularity?
Visit your GP as soon as possible. If your GP is at all concerned it is now routine for them to refer you to a breast clinic. If your GP takes no action, but you still have nagging doubts, you can ask for a second opinion. You will then be seen within two to 10 weeks of your GP referring you, dependant on waiting lists.
Once at the hospital, you will normally have a mammogram (breast x-ray or an ultrasound scan) image created of the breast using high frequency sound waves.
Getting your results
It's a good idea to arrange for someone close to be there, when you receive your results. Remember eight out of 10 breast lumps are benign (non-cancerous). You may find you have a non-cancerous condition, such as mastalgia, or nothing wrong at all. You may like to familiarise yourself with the main types, as well as the range of standard treatments used to fight the disease. Breast cancer recovery is good and is currently over 70% in the UK.
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