According to Cancer Research UK, breast cancer is the most common cancer, accounting for about 15% of all new cases with around 900 women diagnosed each week. However, it is believed that a large proportion of women never examine their breasts.
Breast self-examination (BSE) and getting to know how your breasts look and feel can be vital to help detect breast cancer early, when it's more likely to be treated successfully. Not every incidence of cancer can be found by self-examination and it should in no way replace regular screening and mammographs, but it is a very important method of helping keep an eye on what’s happening to your body.
Most cancer organisations and charities recommend BSE once a month.
What to look for and how to self-examine
Self-examination is not always easy; you may feel lots of lumps and bumps and not know if they are sinister or not. However, the more regularly you examine your own breasts, the more you will get to know how they usually look and feel, and the easier it will be to notice if something is out of the ordinary.
Pick one day a month and put it in your diary, ideally several days after your last period when your breasts are less likely to be tender or swollen. If you are post-menopause, choose a day that you can remember eg. the first of the month. Bear in mind that most women’s left and right breasts do not match so get used to the differences in your breasts and look out for changes, particularly on one side.
Look for any swelling, puckering, dimpling of the skin, changes in the contour or in the nipples and feel for any lumps, thickening or hardened knots.
Stand in front of a mirror, place your hands at your sides and look for any changes.
Put your hands on your hips, push your elbows and shoulders forward and look for any changes.
Grip your hands together above your head and look for any changes.
EXAMINATION BY TOUCH
In the shower or bath, soap your breasts and, using the pads of your fingers, feel over each breast in a circular motion from your collarbone to your armpit and round under each breast. Make sure you cover all your breast tissue.
With each arm by your side, press your fingers firmly up into each armpit.
Alternatively, lying down place a pillow under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head. Use the fingertips of your left hand to feel around your right breast in small circular motions making sure you cover the entire breast area and armpit. Use light, medium, and firm pressure. Squeeze the nipple and check for discharge and lumps. Repeat for your left breast.
Try not to get too concerned if you notice any changes; most lumps or breast pain is caused by normal breast changes or benign conditions. However, it is vital that you contact your GP or visit a breast clinic if you are at all concerned or notice any changes that you feel are out of the ordinary. Things to look out for include:
Change in skin texture (puckering or dimpling like orange peel).
Change in size or shape.
Any swelling around your collarbone or armpit.
A rash or any redness.
An inverted nipple.
Your nipple has changed shape, position or looks different in some way.
Discharge from your nipple.
An area or lump that feels thicker than the rest of the breast.
Continuous pain in your breast or armpit.