October brings a few of our favourite things: pumpkin spice everything, cuddly sweaters, and bright pink ribbons. Why pink ribbons, you ask? Simply, because Breast Cancer Awareness Month has passed us, aiming to bring attention to the second most common cancer in Canadian women.
Although many people are aware of what breast cancer is, what’s more important is to be aware of is how to spot it in its beginning stages; as with all illnesses, the sooner you begin receiving treatment, the greater the chance of recovery. Luckily, there’s a great way to get in tune with your body that can help you become familiar with your breasts from a young age, and will help you catch any abnormalities that appear. Yesterday was the last day of October and also the last day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Prevention and information is always important, no matter the time of year.
First, let’s talk about what you’re made of! Breasts are comprised of fatty tissue and milk glands. Glands are divided into lobes, and lobes are divided into lobules. Milk is produced inside the lobule. A network of ducts carries milk outward toward your nipple. Usually, the nipple doesn't have a single defined hole for milk, but a few very little ones, like pores. The skin immediately surrounding your nipple is called the areola. Your areoles are probably a different colour than the rest of your skin; they may be opaque or translucent, bumpy, or a different texture than the rest of your skin. Your breasts are probably different sizes, and your nipples may be positioned slightly differently; very few women have symmetrical breasts. That’s all totally normal and beautiful.
Your breasts are on top of your pectoral muscles, and in addition to milk transporting equipment also have nerves, blood vessels, and lymph vessels/nodes. The lymphatic system is one component of your immune system, and breast cancer often starts in the lymph nodes. Because the lymphatic system circulates fluid and matter throughout your entire body, it can also transport cancer cells. Your cervical lymph nodes are located in your neck, and they travel down the outside of your chest, concentrating on the outside of your breasts and the area where they are closest to your underarm. This is a spot you should pay special attention to when checking out your bod.
So how should you check yourself out? Simple!
In the shower, use the pads of your fingers to feel your breast in a spiral motion: start at the outside and spiral inwards, making sure you feel your entire breast and even your underarm area! You should be looking for lumps, hardened masses or “knots”, and any abnormal thickening of tissue. If you feel something, write it down and check again next week.
In front of a mirror with your arms by your sides examine how your breasts sit on your chest. Once you’re comfortably aquatinted, raise your arms straight up. Check for swelling, dimpling/puckering of the skin, a change in the contour/shape, and any changes in your nipple.
Still in front of a mirror, put your hands on your hips and flex your chest (pectoral) muscles. Check again for all the things listed above, and pay attention to changes that occur only on one side.
Lay down on your back so your breast tissue can spread out across your chest, placing a pillow under your back for comfort. Your breasts may spread out flat, or they may fall toward your armpits. Maybe they’ll shift toward your chin! This is just gravity, don’t worry!
On your back, place one hand behind your head; to check your right breast, get your right hand out of the way. Using your left hand, feel your breast with the pads of your fingers the same way you did in the shower. Make sure to feel your whole breast and armpit area!
Use varying pressure: light, medium and firm. Check your nipple for lumps, and give it a gentle squeeze to check for discharge.
Be sure to repeat every step on both breasts so you can detect differences between the two.
Although breast exams should typically be performed monthly, you should check more often if you feel that something is off, or that something has changed. You may notice that your breasts feel different during different parts of your cycle, for example, they may swell during ovulation or during your period, and they may feel sore. This is likely just water retention and is totally normal, but it doesn't hurt to get familiar with your body by performing extra checkups if you’re still learning about your breasts and their moods. Basically, you need to know what “regular” feels like so that you’ll be able to recognize if “irregular” occurs.
If you see something abnormal such as dimpling of the skin, this may be the result of something totally regular and benign. For example, if your breasts swell during ovulation when the swelling goes down it may take a few days for the skin to shrink again after it’s been stretched, and it may appear crinkly in the meantime. That said, you should still take note of it if you’ve never experienced it before. If you feel a lump, however, you should contact your doctor or health care provider immediately; do not wait. Lumps and bumps are generally a greater cause for concern than things like dimpling, even though 8 out of every 10 lumps found are benign (non-cancerous). In the off chance that the lump is a tumour, you don't want to waste any time in getting it dealt with. Once again, if you feel a bump, call your doctor immediately; this cannot be stressed enough.
There are other ways to detect breast cancer, such as mammograms or ultrasounds. However, many doctors won’t recommend mammograms until much later in your life, usually your forties or fifties, because this is when risk of breast cancer increases. That said, every doctor is different and so is every woman. When you will begin having regular mammograms depends on your doctor’s style, whether or not you have a history of breast cancer in your family and your overall hormonal health.
If you have questions about breast cancer, you can go to BeyondTheShock.com, an educational website run by the National Breast Cancer Organization. Your health is the most important thing in the world, so take control and get to know your body! We encourage you to think pink all year round.
Sources: cancer.ca, webmd.com (photo source breast anatomy), medicinenet.com (photo source lymph nodes), nationalbreastcancer.org