Boobs come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s important to get to know yours. We’re all aware of the shocking statistics on cancer — one in two of us in the UK will get it in our lifetime, and breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women. One woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every 10 minutes in the UK, totalling 55 thousand each year.
The positive news is that survival rates are generally high. 87% of women diagnosed with breast cancer survive for five or more years, while three in four will live for 10 years or longer.
The key? Treatments for breast cancer have improved hugely over recent years, and breast screening is becoming more affordable and faster thanks to advancements in AI technology, but early detection is vital.
What to Look For
It can be difficult to know where to start when checking your breasts. How should they feel? Squidgy and soft? What if they feel tender or swollen?
The best thing you can do is get into a routine of checking your boobs so that you become familiar with them. Your breasts can change based on where you are in your cycle. They may feel tender to the touch during certain times of the month, and you may even find lumps.
Feeling a lump can be worrying — after all, it’s one of those symptoms we’re always told to look out for. They’re nothing to worry about most of the time, and are just benign lumps of tissue or cysts that grow in response to your hormones. These cysts will usually reduce in size and become less tender as your hormones return to normal.
If you find persistent lumps that are out of the ordinary, or you’re also experiencing other symptoms, that’s when you should visit a GP.
But what other symptoms should you keep an eye out for?
When a lump is cancerous, it may feel hard or be painful to squeeze, have irregular edges and stay in place when you try to push or move it. By comparison, benign lumps are usually smooth and move easily when you touch them.
Change in breast shape
Most women have one boob that’s slightly bigger than the other, and it’s completely normal. However, if you notice that one breast grows even bigger than the other or that the shape has changed, it could be a sign of cancer. Cancerous lumps will get bigger over time, ultimately causing disfigurement.
Nipple discharge isn’t always a sign of cancer. Some women experience discharge regularly, and while it can be embarrassing, it’s rarely serious. However, if nipple discharge starts suddenly, is bloody or accompanies other symptoms, it’s worth getting it checked out.
Changes in appearance
It’s also important to look for changes in the appearance of the breast and surrounding area. Common changes include redness or a darkening of the breast, puckering or dimpling, crusty, scaly or itchy skin around your nipple, and the nipple sinking into the breast. These aren’t always tell-tale signs of cancer. For example, having an itchy, slightly crusty boob could be a case of atopic dermatitis — commonly known as eczema — but if you’re in any doubt, always get it checked out.
How to Check Your Boobs: A Step-by-Step Guide
So now you know what to look out for, but how should you check your boobs? It’s easy once you know what to do, although it can feel a little strange and uncomfortable at first (especially during the winter!). The key is to make it part of your routine when you get out of the bath or shower, for example.
First, stand in front of a mirror and put your hands on your hips. Spend some time looking at the skin around your boobs, checking for any unusual dimpling, puckering, redness or swelling. If you’re examining your boobs for the first time, note any observations and become familiar with how your breasts look.
Then, do this again, first with your arms raised above your head and then with your body leaning forward so that your boobs hang away from your chest.
You also want to look for discharge, which can range from blood to a watery, yellow or white fluid leaking from the nipples.
Next, lie down and feel your left breast with your right hand. Then, switch hands and repeat for your right boob. Keep your fingers flat when examining your breasts, and make circular motions, firmly massaging each boob. Don’t forget to also check your collarbone, cleavage and armpit, as lumps can appear here too. You may need to push a bit harder to reach the tissue right in the centre of each breast.
Finally, stand up or sit upright in a chair and do a final check, again feeling for any lumps, swelling or tenderness. You should repeat this process at least once a month.
If you notice anything unusual or concerning, never hesitate to book an appointment with your GP or at a breast clinic. It will likely be nothing, but it’s always best to get it checked out just in case.
During a breast exam, your doctor will ask about any medication you’re taking that may account for some of your symptoms (such as the contraceptive pill) and your family history. They’ll also check your breasts. This can be a bit unpleasant, but it’s usually over in minutes. Then, they may refer you for further tests, such as a breast scan or biopsy. Alternatively, you might choose to book a private mammogram, which allows you to get your breasts checked quickly and accurately.
If you are referred for further tests, remember that this is a routine measure to be on the safe side.
Cancer is a devastating disease, but spotting it early gives you the best chance for successful treatment and recovery. Most symptoms are harmless, but you should never be shy about getting a professional opinion.