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Are you breast aware? Breast cancer screening 101

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20 October 2021|3 min read

We spend a fair amount of time thinking about breasts if you happen to have them. Whether it be which bra to buy, if you’re showing more than you want in an outfit or if you’re feeding a little one, breasts are often at the forefront of our minds. 

With all that thought, you probably know your breasts better than anyone. More than half of breast cancers in Australia are picked up by people who find something abnormal themselves. 

Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know about being breast aware.

Breast cancer 101

Cancer is an abnormal growth that arises in our own cells when the messages that tell our cells to grow in an orderly fashion get mixed up. 

Breast cancer refers to cancer arising in the breast - usually from the cells that line the lobules (that produce milk) or the ducts (the tubes that carry milk to the nipple). In Australia, 1 in 7 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. 

Some of the signs or symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • a lump in the breast or armpit or a thickening of the breast
  • changes in the skin of the breast, such as dimpling or something that looks like a rash
  • the nipple being pulled in or inverted
  • discharge (other than milk if you’re lactating) from the nipple
  • any change to your breasts that is abnormal for you

Breast cancer can also occur in males, so it’s important for everyone to be aware of breast cancer.

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It’s important to know that there is no right or wrong way to check your breasts

How to do a breast check

The first thing to know about checking your own breasts is that you need to do it regularly. Some people use little sayings like ‘feel on the first’ to remind them to check their breasts each month. 

To start with, stand in front of a mirror and look at your breasts with your hands on your hips - do you notice anything different? Is the skin the same, is it smooth or dimpled when it wasn’t before? Look for other things like rashes or discharge while you’re there.

Next, we’re going to feel. Some find it easier to feel in the shower because the water makes it easier for your fingers to glide over the skin. 

Then you’re going to feel your breasts, from your collarbone to your tummy. Don’t forget to feel into your armpit too - a lot of people don’t know this, but the breast tissue actually extends up to your armpit! 

You also want to do this lying down, with your arm up behind your head so that you can reach everywhere. 

You’re looking for anything abnormal for you, especially if it’s changed. Think of lumps, thickened areas, painful areas or anything that just doesn’t feel quite right. If you feel something you’re not sure about, have a chat with your doctor.

It’s important to know that there is no right or wrong way to check your breasts. These things make it easier to remember where to go and what to look for but again, we want you to get into the habit of doing it because you know your breasts best.

What is breast cancer screening?

Screening refers to looking for diseases in people who have no symptoms. The goal is to find breast cancer early, allowing much more effective treatment. In breast cancer, screening involves mammograms and other ways of taking pictures of the breast, to detect breast cancer.

Breast cancer screening is one of the most effective screening programs we have. 70-90% of breast cancers can be picked up by a mammogram, even finding cancers that are as small as a grain of rice. 

For every 1000 women who have breast cancer screening in Australia, eight cancer deaths will be prevented, particularly for women aged 50-74 and in women with a family history of breast cancer. 

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In Australia, women aged 40 or over can get a mammogram every two years to look for early breast cancer.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a kind of x-ray where the breast is briefly squeezed between two plates to take a picture of the breast to look for cancers. It can be a little uncomfortable but everyone is different and it’s over and done with very quickly.

In Australia, women aged 40 or over can get a mammogram every two years to look for early breast cancer. 

We don’t advise mammograms in younger women because breast tissue is much denser as we’re younger. This makes it hard for the mammograms to pick up any abnormalities.

I have breast implants…

If you have breast implants, you can still have a mammogram. The risk of problems with your implants from the mammogram is very small. 

For some women with implants, mammograms may not be as effective but they can still pick up cancers early. 

If you have implants, whatever your age, it’s still important to have your breasts checked regularly to check that the implants are okay - chat to your surgeon about this.

What happens if I find a problem?

This is the really scary part. Finding breast lumps yourself or a problem on a mammogram can be incredibly distressing. 

I know it’s easier said than done, but the first step is not to panic. Breasts can be lumpy and funny for a host of reasons other than cancer. 

The second thing to keep in mind is that if something is found early, it’s a good thing because treatment is great when commenced early.

Depending on the issue, more tests might be ordered. This can include other ways of taking pictures of the breast, including ultrasounds which can give more information. 

It might include taking a small sample of the abnormal area - sometimes through a needle, sometimes a small operation to take a bigger bit. 

After this, a doctor can check it using a microscope and confirm what the issue is. 

Where can I find more information?

Any concerns - chat to your GP. Otherwise check out BreastScreen Australia and BCNA for a wealth of information, including on how to examine your own breasts.

Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board October 2021

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This article contains information and advice of general nature only. You should always consult with your medical professional for health and wellness advice specific to your personal circumstances.