One of the things that women often ask me, usually as a quick question on their way out of the door, is how to examine their breasts. I think breast cancer is something most women worry about and with good reason, as it is still the commonest cancer in the UK. The vast majority of cases are diagnosed in women over the age of 50, and although less than 2000 women under 40 are diagnosed annually; it remains the commonest cancer to affect women in this age group. So however old you are, it is extremely important to check your breasts on a regular basis.
I always tell people that I think ‘getting to know’ your breasts is the best way to do this…. that doesn’t mean anything dodgy… but only by knowing what your breasts usually feel like can you tell if there are any changes. Some of us have naturally lumpy boobs and obviously they all come in various shapes and sizes – so start getting to know what’s normal for you.
Taking a good look at your breasts is the first important thing to do. Look at the skin, nipples and areola (dark area around the nipple). Changes that should prompt a trip to your doctor are any sucking in or puckering of breast skin. Also give your nipples a peek and check for any rashes, inversion of the nipple or discharge coming out. It’s always worth looking in the mirror first with your arms by your side and secondly with them raised above your head to double check to any of these skin changes.
I think the shower is the easiest way to physically check your breasts – warm, wet skin seems easier deal with, and it’s easy to get in the habit of doing so whilst you’re having a quick wash! Using your finger tips you need to essentially lightly feel all over each breast looking for any lumps or bumps. Doctors are taught to think of the breast as being divided into 4 sections, or quadrants (imagine the face of a compass) and this makes sure we don’t miss any bits when we examine you. This obviously isn’t strictly necessary – but it can be handy to visualise something to make sure you cover all areas of each breast. I’ve that read some people suggest ‘mowing the lawn’ i.e. going up and down each breast in ‘rows’, which seems quite a good and easy to remember way to do it. Don’t forget to check all the way up to, and underneath each armpit, as this is technically breast too.
If you do find lumps or bumps don’t automatically panic, there are lots of completely innocent causes for breast lumps (separate post coming up) – but if there are new changes you should always get your GP to check it out.