One in seven Australian women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and detecting cancer early is the key to saving lives. With Breast Cancer Awareness Month running throughout Australia during October, we thought it was timely to remind women in our community about the importance of regular self-check.
Here are some commonly asked questions, and please feel free to discuss any concern you have with your GP.
Why is early detection important?
Breast cancers found early are more easily treated, as treatment options are wider. According to Cancer Australia, survival rates continue to improve nationally, with 89 out of every 100 women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer now surviving five or more years beyond diagnosis.
Who should have a breast screen?
Breast screenings are recommended for women over the age of 40, and self-checks are recommended from the age of 20 (seeking further action if you find anything suspicious).
Breast cancer in women under 40 is rare, accounting for about 5% of breast cancer diagnoses, and about 80% of breast cancers happen in women over 50. That is why breast screening is often most effective for women aged 50-74. If you have a family history of the disease, or you notice something is not quite right, speak to your doctor about breast screening and they can talk you through the risks and benefits. Please note too, that while family history has been found to play a role, about 95% of most breast cancers happen in women when there is no family history.
BreastScreen Queensland is part of the national BreastScreen Australia program, which provides free breast screening to all Queensland women aged 40 and over.
What happens at a breast screen?
Breast screens are also called mammograms. A special x-ray machine can show small cancers that may not be felt or seen through self-checks or by a GP. Breasts are placed on a plate and the machine pushes down on the breast. It shouldn’t be painful, but it can be uncomfortable.
Can men get breast cancer?
About 1% of cancers happen in men so it is rare, however any changes a man notices in their breasts should be checked by a GP and referred on for further screening if required.
When should I see my doctor?
See your doctor if you notice any new lumps or lumpiness; shape or colour changes to your breast or nipple; nipple discharge; dimpling or puckering of breast skin; persistent pain; or persistent nipple or breastfeeding itching or rash.
If you are unsure about what to look for, you can view a short breast changes video here.
How do I do a breast self-check?
To learn how to do self-checks, Jean Hailes for Women’s Health has a helpful guide here. This guide is summarised below.
- From your 20s, do the checks once a month. Check the contours of your breasts for discharge, redness or swelling or for any changes to their shape or colour.
- Look at your breasts standing in front of the mirror with hands on hips, and then arms raised above your head. Follow this with a check lying down. It can also be helpful to check them in the shower as when breasts are wet and slippery and that can help pick up any changes.
- A technique when lying down for example, is to lay with your arm bent at the elbow and resting above your head. Stretch your hands so your palms and fingers are flat like a plate – this allows you to feel without poking. Feel the entire breast area from your collarbone to your tummy and include your armpits. This is a helpful way to look for lumps, painful areas, or skin that is dimpled, flattened and different from what it was previously.
Research suggests about nine out of 10 lumps aren’t cancerous, so try not to panic if you do find a new one. Check with your GP as soon as you can or have a mammogram to confirm what it is and if further investigation is necessary.
We are here to help
We are here to help you with any questions or concerns you have regarding women’s health and breast health. Please feel free to make an appointment with one of the experienced GPs here.