Written by: Mutshidzi Kwinda
If there is one thing I have noticed in and around my social circle is that although we may talk about problems faced by women, it seems like breast ailments are among the least spoken or discussed topics. This is shocking given that, 1 in 8 women in the world are estimated to have breast cancer in their lifetime. This number accounts for approximately 13% of women alive today. And yes, breast cancer is on top of the list of illnesses affecting the breast and it is also one of the leading causes of death in women globally.
Whilst breast cancer is the most common and known disease of the breast. The changes that occur do not always signal cancer. So you shouldn't panic if you find or feel something unusual in or on your breasts. Sometimes the various breast changes (i.e. breast lumps, pain, discharges, irritation, or discomfort), could be an indication of different things. For example, they could be a sign or symbol of changes in hormone levels or simply a reaction to medicines or supplements.
How to differentiate between normal and abnormal breast changes.
The best way to know when something is wrong is by knowing what normal looks and feels like. This means that monitoring your breast during your periods and in between periods is important to not confuse the normal hormone changes to breast abnormalities. On a normal day (without periods, pregnancy, lactation, menopause, or puberty phase), your breast should feel warm like the rest of your torso/trunk. It should also be soft on touch and without pain, unusual lumps, or discharges.
How to routinely examine your breast.
A breast self-exam is usually performed to detect early signs of cancer which in most cases would be a lump, swelling, or some sort of distortions.
To check for changes in your breast, you need to attentively use “your eyes and hands to determine if there are any changes.” You can ask someone you know and trust to help if you have vision impairment or upper limbs disability.
Step 1: Inspect your breasts using your eyes.
For this, you will need to be standing or sitting shirtless in front of a mirror.
Position yourself (looking forward and again sideways) with your hands placed in the following positions at each time – hands pressed down on your hips, arms overhead, and palms of your hands pressed together.
What are you looking for?
For this first step, you are checking if,
- The nipples are turned in.
- There are no changes in the breast shape and size.
- There is puckering or dimpling.
Lastly, lift your breasts while standing facing forward to check the symmetry of the ridges.
Step 2: Examine your breasts using your hands.
To make it easier, you can choose to do this step either by lying down on your bed or by using soap while in the shower.
While lying down, put your left hand under your head and use your right-hand fingers to make small circular motions, follow an up and down pattern over the entire breast area, under the arms, and up to the shoulder bone firmly. Repeat using your left-hand fingers on your right breast.
While in the shower, raise your left arm over your head and use soap on your right-hand fingers and repeat the procedure as described in step 2.1 for the left breast. And also do the same for the right breast by swapping heads.
What are you looking for?
The main purpose of self-examining your breasts with your hands is to look for lumps. A lump may feel like a rock in your breast, usually firm and rigid but sometimes can be soft (especially if it is a cyst).
It is advisable to do a breast self-exam, at least once a month. This helps for the early detection of lumps which may potentially develop into cancerous tumors if not treated early. If you find unusual changes in your breast, consult with your doctor for advice and more information on what to do next.