Health Q&A

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: How to Spot the Signs and Symptoms

October 10, 2017

October is International Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide and sadly, the lifetime risk for women in South Africa is 1 in 26, according to the 2012 National Cancer Registry (NCR).

However, despite its frequency, there are still myths that surround breast cancer. In honour of this month, we want to bust those myths and be clear as to how you can spot the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.
Reduce the risk of breast cancer and become aware today:

Who can get breast cancer?

Breast cancer can affect people of all genders, ages and races. It’s often thought of as a women’s health issue but in rare cases men can develop breast cancer from the small amount of breast tissue behind their nipples.
The disease is most common in people over the age of 50, but younger people can be affected too. According to PinkDrive, South Africa’s breast cancer community carer, the risk of breast cancer does increase with age with 50% of breast cancer occurring in women aged 62 and over.

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer

Breast cancer can affect anyone, but it is a treatable illness and early detection can save lives.
Some symptoms of breast cancer are:

• A new lump in the breast or armpit
Many breast lumps are benign but it’s very important to get any new lumps examined by a health professional. Breast cancer lumps can be painless and hard or tender, soft, rounded and painful. Because of this, no lump should be ignored.

• Swelling of the breast
Even if there is no palpable lump, any swelling (whether it affects the whole breast, or just part of it) is cause for concern. In particular, this may be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC).

• Skin irritation or dimpling
Skin changes on the breast may be a sign of breast cancer, it can also be linked to IBC.

• Breast or nipple pain
Although many breast cancer lumps are painless, some people experience pain. Without any other symptoms, it’s unlikely that this is caused by breast cancer but you should still consult a physician.

• Nipple retraction
It’s estimated that 10 to 20 per cent of women have inverted nipples. If you have always had nipples that point inwards rather than out, there is nothing to worry about. However, any changes to nipples should be examined.

• Redness, scaling, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
In the case of IBC, a rash can be an early symptom. As IBC doesn’t usually cause lumps, it’s important to monitor skin changes.

• Nipple discharge
Aside from breast milk, healthy nipples should not produce discharge so visit your doctor if you experience this.

• Change in size or shape
It’s not unusual for one breast to be bigger than the other, or for one to be lower than the other. However, look out for any changes. If your breasts alter, report it to a doctor.

• Swollen lymph nodes
You have lymph nodes all over your body but the most noticeable are usually in your neck and breast cancer can spread to your lymph nodes. Lymph nodes can swell as a result of an infection, however, if they stay enlarged after a few weeks or if they feel hard and immovable, it’s important to get them checked out.

How to check your breasts for lumps

As the most common symptom of breast cancer is a lump, it’s important to understand how to identify them. Although routine mammograms can be used to detect breast cancer, they do not find every breast cancer and, for earliest detection, you should check yourself monthly.

Here is how to conduct a self-examination for both men and women:

1. First, begin by examining your breasts by sight. Stand in front of a mirror, place your hands on your hips and check that your breasts are the same size, shape and colour as usual. If you notice any changes in appearance report these to a doctor.

2. Keep looking at your breasts and carry out the same examination but this time with your arms raised above your head.

3. Next, you should focus on how your breasts feel. Lie down and use your right hand to feel your left breast, and your left to feel the right. Use your first three fingers in a circular motion, starting at your collarbone and finishing at the top of your abdomen. Don’t forget the side of your breasts and your armpits.

4. Finally, do the same step above but this time in the shower or bath as some breast lumps are easier to feel when your skin is wet.

The earlier that breast cancer is detected, the better chance of a cure. By understanding the signs and symptoms, carrying out monthly self-examinations and attending routine mammograms, you are giving yourself the best chance that any breast cancer you may develop is discovered early and is treatable.

If you have any questions about your medical aid benefits, our registered nurses are on hand to help you. Get in touch and we’d be happy to help.

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