It’s surprising but true that traditional breast self examinations (BSE) don’t save lives. Three years ago research revealed that using the rigorous step-by-step process on a monthly basis does not actually catch more breast cancer cases, explains Gillian Bromfield, senior manager, cancer care policy with the Canadian Cancer Society. So than what’s our best course of action for early breast cancer detection? Awareness.
“You need to be breast aware and that means learning what looks and feels normal for your breasts,” says Dr Sandra Messner, an expert in breast screening and a general practitioner in oncology both at Women’s College Hospital and the Cancer Centre at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. This doesn’t have to happen in a structured way, such as a BSE, she says. But you do have to take time (ideally five days after your period starts) to look at and feel your breasts on a regular basis.
Stand in front of a mirror and look at your breasts from the side, straight on with your arms at the side and then on your hips, and also as you bend forward. This helps you discover what your breasts do in different positions. Also check out the size, shape, and texture of your nipples. Next, touch your breasts using different types of pressure. Remember that breast tissue extends to the collarbone and around the side of your body under the armpit – so don’t skip those areas, says Bromfield. If you’re just beginning to learn about your breasts, Dr Messner recommends starting this process after you have a clinical breast exam done by your doctor. That way, you know what your healthy breasts feel like.
Once you’ve figured out what’s normal for your breasts, you can watch for changes. “You’re looking for something that stands out from the normal look and feel of the area,” says Dr Messner. These include: lumps or bumps inside or on the breast; dimpling or puckering of the skin; a patch of skin that’s thick and tough like an orange peel; nipple discharge (if you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding); and rashes, itchiness or redness. “The relieving thing is that the majority of the changes a woman finds herself are not cancer,” says Dr Messner, but anything you do notice needs to be mentioned to your doctor.
Remember, in addition to being breast aware, get a clinical breast exam done by your doctor with your yearly pap test. And after the age of 40, ask about having regular mammograms.