It is almost October, aka Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which serves to increase awareness, raise funds for research, and remind us to take stock of our individual health. Currently, breast cancer develops in women in the United States at a rate of 1 in 8 (around 12%), with a lower risk for men at 1 in 883. While it’s unfortunately extremely common in women, doctors and researchers have found that early detection is crucial for the success of breast cancer treatment.
The Importance of Early Detection
If a medical team reaches the cancerous cells while they’re still localized, meaning before the cancer spreads throughout the body, the five-year survival chances are about 99%. This percentage decreases the longer the cancer lives in the body undetected. In the case of cancer that has spread, the treatment is much more generalized over a larger surface area, rather than just a specific area, exposing more of the body to harsh treatments.
Because of the prevalence of breast cancer, it’s important to check yourself regularly and contact a doctor immediately if any of the following signs are present:
The most well-known sign of breast cancer is a breast lump. This is what women are most often told to check for. While the risk of developing breast cancer increases as a woman ages, doctors recommend starting to check for lumps around the age of 20—with annual mammograms starting around age 40.
A self-exam is the simplest way to detect breast lumps. Approximately once a month, women should perform a thorough exam to check for any irregularities. According to BreastCancer.org, a self-exam starts by standing in front of a mirror and looking for any irregularities in the breasts. This process involves lying down and lightly feeling the breasts to take note of changes in texture and appearance of harder bumps. If any unusual lump or change is noticed, contact a doctor immediately. A doctor can perform a professional exam or ultrasound as soon as possible to determine if there’s a potential threat.
Swelling is also an early sign of breast cancer. While some minor changes in breast size are normal, especially around the time of a woman’s monthly period, dramatic changes may indicate inflammation. If there is a change in breast size all of a sudden, or if a certain area of the breast is becoming fuller than the rest, a doctor should be contacted to do a full professional exam. One thing to note is swelling should not be confused with breasts of varying sizes. It is totally normal to have a slight difference in size from one breast to the other, but if this difference becomes much more dramatic or there’s a new difference, it is time to contact a health provider.
3) Skin Dimpling
Skin dimpling is also associated with the early stages of breast cancer. This dimpling might be subtle, so it should be checked for during the aforementioned monthly self-exam in the mirror. Because of its subtlety, proper lighting is necessary to see these differences in texture. This dimpling is often compared to the skin of an orange, with small divots on a particular area of the breast.
4) Nipple Changes
The nipples shouldn’t be left out of a self-exam. Changes in the shape, size, and firmness of the nipples could indicate an internal problem within the breast tissue. Inverted nipples are a common sign among early breast cancer patients. The nipple will appear to have turned in on itself. If a nipple issue is discovered, reach out to a doctor, who can perform a scan to determine the cause. The same goes for any sudden inflammation of the nipple. Sudden asymmetry in the nipples is also a red flag, so checking for this in the mirror on a regular basis is crucial. Finally, any abnormal discharge from the nipple should be taken as a warning sign and examined by a doctor as soon as possible.
Listen to Your Body
Doctors suggest becoming familiar with how your breasts usually look and feel, that way, changes and differences are immediately noticeable. If the breasts change suddenly, that’s the body’s message that it needs medical attention. And while regular self-exams are crucial, there’s no replacement for frequent doctor visits and annual mammograms.
If you’re interested in helping people detect and treat breast cancer, a career as a medical assistant might be a good fit for you. MAs can promote healthy habits, like self-exams, for women through their positions as educational resources.