Breasts come in all shapes and sizes, and as they will change from adolescence through to menopause, it’s important to know what is normal, how to conduct a breast check and when to see a doctor.
The biggest reason for doing this is to detect breast cancer early – which is what approximately 20,000 Australians are diagnosed with each year. That is about 55 Australians each day that are diagnosed, making it the most diagnosed cancer in the country. Sadly, nine Australians a day die from the disease.
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, about one in seven women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and about one in 700 men are diagnosed in their lifetime. Most breast cancer cases in Australia occur in about 80% of women aged above 50, though it still occurs in young women, with up to 1000 under the age of 40 projected to receive the diagnosis in 2021.
What you need to do
In the past 10 years, breast cancer diagnosis has increased by 36%, and survival rates have improved from 76% to 91%. While there is ongoing research and scientists work on new ways to detect and treat cancer, here are some things you can do to detect breast cancer early, seek treatment and enhance your chance of beating the disease:
- Know your breasts
The primary function of breasts is to make milk after a baby is born (called lactation). Each breast is made up of 15-20 lobes containing milk-producing glands and ducts which the milk travels along to reach the nipple. Breasts also contain blood vessels, lymph glands and nerves. Fat and fibrous tissues give breasts their size and shape. It is normal to have one breast slightly larger than the other.
Breast tissue is affected by the hormonal changes associated with the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and lactation. Breast tissue can become more tender or lumpy just before a period. It can be normal to have benign (non-cancerous) nodules, but it’s important to have these checked. During the perimenopausal years, when women transition to their final period (known as menopause) women often experience increased breast discomfort when the glandular tissue of the breast is replaced by fatty tissue and a change of hormones result. It’s important to know your own breasts so you can tell if any changes occur.
- When to see your doctor
It is important to know your own breasts so you can tell if any changes occur. You should see your doctor about:
- new lumps
- new lumpiness
- changes in the shape of your breast
- changes in the colour of your breast
- changes in the nipple
- discharge from the nipple
- puckering or dimpling of breast skin
- any persistent breast pain
- any persistent nipple or breast itching or rash
- any concerns.
You can also reduce your risk of breast cancer by:
- limiting your alcohol intake
- eating a healthy diet of wholegrains, fruit and vegetables
- doing physical activity most, if not all, days of the week
- maintaining a healthy weight.
Jean Hailes from Women’s Health recommends that if you are familiar with the way your breasts look and feel, it will make it easier to notice if any changes occur. From your 20s onwards, do the following checks once a month:
- What to do:
- Stand in front of a mirror with your hands on your hips and shoulders straight. Look at the shape, colour and size of your breasts and nipples.
- Next, while still looking in the mirror, raise your arms in the air and look for the same things – shape, colour and size of your breasts and nipples.
A visual check of your breasts will help you to see:
- the contours of your breasts
- any changes to their usual shape and colour
- any discharge from the nipple
- any redness, rash or swelling.
Next, feel your breasts while you are under the shower. Some women prefer to feel their breasts when they are wet and slippery as it helps them to notice any changes. Also feel your breasts while lying down 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 will allow you to feel without poking your breasts. Make sure you feel the entire breast area from your collarbone to your tummy, and include your armpits.
It is another helpful way to look for:
- areas that are painful
- skin that is:
- different from before.
If you detect a new lump, don’t panic. Research shows that 9 in 10 breast lumps are not cancer, however it is best to have them checked professionally to rule out breast cancer.
Breast screening can show breast changes too small for you or your doctor to feel, detecting breast cancer earlier, i.e. before you feel a lump.
For women aged 40-49 and over BreastScreen Australia offers free screening mammograms every two years for women who have no obvious breast symptoms. These screenings particularly benefit the age group of 50-75 with reminders sent, depending on the state or territory you live in. To arrange a screening mammogram, visit BreastScreen Australia. No doctor referral is necessary. If you have had breast implants, advise your doctor before the mammogram is performed so they are aware.
Some women also prefer private breast screening. See your doctor for private services near you and to discuss what option is best for you.
If you are concerned about a breast lump, tenderness or any other symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Sources & further information resources:
- Breast Cancer Care WA
- McGrath Foundation
- Jean Hailes for Women’s Health
- National Breast Cancer Foundation
- Jean Hailes for Women’s Health “Be Breast Aware” downloadable factsheet