What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
Regular self-exams can often detect lumps and abnormalities at the beginning stages of breast cancer. You know what your breasts normally look like and subtle differences may catch your eye. The most common symptom is a new lump or mass. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancer, but breast cancers can be tender, soft, or round. They can even be painful. For this reason, it’s important to have any new breast mass, lump, or breast change checked by an experienced health care professional.
Other possible symptoms include:
- Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt)
- Skin dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
- Breast or nipple pain
- Nipple retraction (turning inward)
- Nipple or breast skin that is red, dry, flaking or thickened
- Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
- Swollen lymph nodes (Sometimes a breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast is large enough to be felt.)
Sometimes the cancer progresses without obvious external symptoms, which is why annual mammogram screenings are crucial. A mammogram can detect early signs of cancer when it’s small and hasn’t spread, which makes it easier to treat.
How often should women be screened?
For mammograms, women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms (x-rays of the breast) if they wish to do so.
Women age 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
Women 55 and older should switch to mammograms every 2 years, or can continue yearly screening.
Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.
Self-exams should be done once a month. Look for any changes in breast tissue, such as changes in size, feeling a palpable lump, dimpling or puckering of the breast, inversion of the nipple, redness or scaliness of the breast skin, redness or scaliness of the nipple/areola area, or discharge of secretions from the nipple.
If you discover a persistent lump in your breast or any changes, it is very important that you see a physician immediately. Though 8 out of 10 lumps are benign, all require evaluation to confirm that they are not cancerous.
Women should perform their breast self exam 7-10 days after their menstrual period starts or, if they aren’t menstruating, on the same day each month.
What can increase your risk?
Women who are over age 55 are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer, as well as women who have a family history of breast cancer or have certain inherited gene mutations.
Risk factors that we can control include:
- Alcohol consumption.
- Being overweight or obese
- Not having children
- Not breastfeeding
- Hormonal birth control
- Hormone therapy after menopause
Is prevention possible?
It’s not possible to completely prevent breast cancer, but there are ways to lower your risk. Maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically active and limiting or avoiding alcohol can all lower your risk. Women who choose to breastfeed for at least several months may also get an added benefit of reducing their breast cancer risk. Using hormone therapy after menopause can increase your risk of breast cancer. To avoid this, talk to your health care provider about non-hormonal options to treat menopausal symptoms.
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