Breast Health: Breast Self-Exam and Cancer Risks

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How do I take care of my breasts?

Like so many topics in health care, there’s controversy on how helpful breast self-exams are in finding cancers, but it’s great to know how your breasts normally look and feel so you’ll be able to tell if there are changes later. Once you’re in your twenties, you should begin doing a self-breast exam every month about the same time; 3-5 days after your menstrual period ends. This will help you get to know how your breasts feel normally. You will then be able to notice if any new or different lumps develop. Remember, some lumps are normal, but if you’re worried at any time, talk to your health care provider.

Another great time to do an exam is the day you see your HCP for a check-up, and he or she has said that your breasts are healthy. Then you’ll know that any “lumps” you feel in your breasts are just normal glands. Here’s how to do a 3-part breast self-exam that takes only a few minutes.

Lying down:

  • First, place a pillow under your right shoulder.
  • Next, put your right hand under your head.
  • Check your entire right breast area with the pads of the fingers of your left hand.
  • Use small circles to feel all around your breast, then feel up-and-down:
  • Use light, medium, and firm pressure over each area of your breast.
  • Gently squeeze the nipple to check for any discharge.
  • Switch arms and repeat these steps on your left breast.

In front of a mirror:

  • Look in the mirror (without wearing your bra) then check check for any changes in the shape or the look of your breasts.
  • Note any skin or nipple changes such as dimpling or nipple discharge.
  • Look at your breasts in four steps: arms at sides, arms overhead, hands on hips pressing firmly to flex chest muscles, and bending forward.

In the shower:

  • With soapy hands and fingers flat, raise your right arm.
  • Check your right breast.
  • Use the same small circles and up-and-down pattern described above in the “Lying Down” position.
  • Switch arms and repeat on your left breast.

Your HCP will likely do a breast exam once a year. While you may find this a little embarrassing, a breast exam is an important way for your HCP to learn what’s normal for your breasts and to look for any lumps that aren’t normal.

Is it normal to have lumpy breasts?

Normal breasts can be smooth or lumpy. Most lumps are due to normal changes in breast tissue that occur during development. Your breasts may also feel different or lumpy around the time of your period. If you do notice that a new lump appears in your breast and does not disappear after your period, you should make an appointment with your health care provider.

What if I notice a new lump or something different about my breasts?

Most lumps or changes in your breasts that occur when you are a teen or young woman are due to normal changes in the breast tissue. If you find a lump it could be from hormonal changes, an injury, a breast cyst filled with fluid from a blocked mammary gland (milk-producing gland), an infection, or a benign (not cancerous) tumor called a fibroadenoma. If the lump is sore or the skin over it is red, you may have an infection and you should contact your health care provider. If your breast just feels lumpy, check it again after your next period, since your breasts may feel different or lumpy to the touch around or before the time of your period. If the lump doesn’t disappear after you finish your period, see your health care provider (HCP). Your HCP may order an ultrasound of your breast to figure out what kind of lump you have. If you have a fibroadenoma, your HCP will discuss whether it can be regularly examined and watched without any special treatment, or if you need surgery to remove it.

What if I notice a hard lump and redness on my breast?

A hard lump in the breast with redness over it could mean you have a deep infection called a breast abscess (sometimes called Mastitis), especially if you also have breast pain and a fever. Although a breast abscess is usually a complication of breastfeeding, other things can cause breast infections, such as shaving, tweezing, or plucking hairs around the nipple area; sexual play that causes trauma; or getting a cut on the breast. Abscesses can also occur if a duct becomes blocked during breast development, or from bacteria getting into the nipple. It’s best to try to prevent a breast infection by avoiding things that could cause trauma or cuts to your breast(s). If you’re breastfeeding, keep your nipples clean and dry.

If you think you might have a breast abscess, don’t wait! Make an appointment to see your HCP and start antibiotics right away.

What if I have a bump on my breast(s) from a sports injury or fall?

Treat your breast injury as you would treat an injury on any other part of your body. If the lump is sore and black & blue, it’s probably from the injury. If you feel a lump but you don’t remember injuring yourself, or if the lump is still present after a week, see your HCP. Don’t worry – there’s no link between breast injury and breast cancer.

Who is at risk for breast cancer?

Women with certain medical conditions, lifestyle habits, genes (information passed from one generation to the next), or traits (referred to as “risk factors”) may be more likely than other women to get cancer. However, having risk factors does not mean you will get breast cancer. Most women who develop breast cancer have no risk factors at all.

Overall, you are at a higher risk for developing breast cancer if you:

  • Have close relatives (mother, sister, grandmother, or aunt) who have had breast cancer
  • Have one of a few specific genetic mutations (mistakes in your genetic code) that are passed on from one generation to the next that increase your chances of getting breast cancer
  • Are obese, which is primarily linked with menopausal status
  • Drink alcohol excessively

How can I lower my risk for breast cancer?

You can lower your risk for breast cancer by keeping your lifestyle healthy. Don’t smoke, limit alcohol intake, exercise regularly, follow a healthy diet – eat lots of fruits and veggies, and have regular checkups with your health care provider.

Do I need to have a mammogram?

A mammogram is an x-ray of the breasts, usually done to try to find early signs of breast cancer. Teens do not need to get mammograms. In fact, mammograms don’t work well in teenagers and young adults because the breast tissue is too thick and too dense to get a clear picture. Most women start having mammograms when they are about 40. Some women younger than 40 years old have mammograms if they have a family history of breast cancer, if they have had radiation treatment for other cancers in the past, or if their health care provider recommends it for another reason.

Learning to care for your breasts when you’re a teenager is an important way to make sure that your whole body stays healthy when you’re older. Although breast cancer is very uncommon in women under the age of 35, if you become familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts now, you’re taking an important step toward good general health for the future.