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Breast self-examination: Symptoms to watch out for Breast self-examination: Symptoms to watch out for

Breast self-examination: Symptoms to watch out for

Surya Hospital

January 18, 2024 |
9 Min Read | 201

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers seen in women and it is said to happen when abnormal cells in the breast grow uncontrollably, forming a tumor. When we hear the term, we assume it happens only to women, however, men too can develop it, though the chances are quite rare. Early detection plays an important role in the treatment of of breast cancer and regular self-examinations, clinical breast exams by healthcare professionals, and mammograms are essential for identifying any abnormalities at an early stage. 

While breast cancer can be daunting to face, advancements in medical research have significantly improved survival rates and quality of life for those diagnosed with it at early stages. So, it is important to be vigilant about changes happening to your body. In this blog, we have elaborated on various symptoms of breast cancer and how you can look for these by performing a breast self-examination. Continue reading for more. 

Let’s start by asking the most basic question, 

What is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is a form of cancer that begins in the breast cells. It usually starts in the cells of the milk-producing glands called lobules or the ducts that carry milk from the lobules to the nipple. In rare cases, breast cancer may also develop in the fatty tissue or other cell types within the breast.

As per the World Health Organization, 2.3 million cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in the year 2020 alone, and it accounted for 685,000 deaths worldwide. The numbers are quite concerning and the lack of proper knowledge and awareness happens to be one of the greatest contributors to it. Despite the fact that breast cancer symptoms can be easily detected with the help of self-breast examination, many women don’t know how it is done and what symptoms to look out for. 

Types of Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer is broadly categorised into two main groups - non-invasive (in situ) and invasive

Non-Invasive (In Situ) Breast Cancer

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS): One common type of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). In this case, the abnormal cells occur in milk ducts and do not spread to surrounding tissues. 
  • Lobular Carcinoma in Situ (LCIS): They are found in the lobules, but they don't invade nearby tissues. LCIS is not a true cancer; rather, it is a marker for an elevated risk of developing invasive breast cancer.

Invasive (In Situ) Breast Cancer

  • Ductal carcinoma (IDC): Here, the cancer cells have broken through the milk ducts and invade the nearby tissues.
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC): This starts in the milk-producing glands and can spread to nearby tissues.
  • Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC): It presents with redness, swelling, and warmth in the breast. It may not always appear with a lump. 
  • Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC): This type lacks estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and HER2 protein. It usually responds well to the dedicated treatments. 
  • HER2-Positive Breast Cancer: In this type, cancer cells have higher than normal levels of the HER2 protein, which can promote the growth of cancer cells.
  • Hormone Receptor-Positive Breast Cancer: This type is characterized by cancer cells that have receptors for estrogen and/or progesterone. Hormone therapy can help here.
  • Paget's disease of the nipple: This is a less common type of breast cancer which affects the skin around the nipple area,

Breast Self-Examination

Breast self-examination is a crucial practice for every woman to be aware of any potential signs or symptoms of breast health issues. By regularly performing this examination, women can detect any changes in their breasts and seek medical attention promptly if necessary. This should be done around 3 to 5 days following your periods. If you have already hit menopause, you should do it every month, on the same day. 

Lie down on your back as this way it is easier to examine the breasts. 

  • You need to place your right hand above your head and examine your right breast with the middle fingers of your left hand by moving it gently over the entire breast. 
  • The next step is to examine the armpit for any unusual lumps. Do this by sitting or standing upright, while your hand is still above your head and feel the area gently. 
  • Now, you need to check the nipples for any abnormal discharge or bleeding. You can simply do this by squeezing the nipple and see if anything comes out. 
  • It is important to make sure that you are covering the entire breast and looking for the most minute details. 

Repeat the same steps for the left breast now, while lacing your left arm above your head. Once done for both breasts, stand in front of a mirror and see if you notice any noteworthy change in the size or shape of the breast.

Symptoms to watch out for

When conducting a breast self-examination, it is important to check for the following symptoms:

  • Lumps or thickening in the breast or underarm area - Any new lump or mass that feels different from the surrounding tissue should be taken seriously and reported to a healthcare professional.
  • Changes in breast size or shape - If you notice any noticeable changes in the size or shape of your breasts.
  • Skin changes - Look out for redness, swelling, dimpling, puckering, or other unusual changes on the skin of your breasts.
  • Nipple discharge - Discharge from the nipple that is not milk-related could be a cause for concern and should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
  • Nipple inversion - If your nipple suddenly becomes inverted (pulled inward) when it was previously pointing outward, it may indicate an underlying issue that requires medical attention.

What are the Causes of Breast Cancer?

In the majority of cases, it is quite difficult to pinpoint the underlying cause of breast cancer, however, it is believed to be linked to abnormal DNA mutations that compel the cells to multiply at a faster pace. Now, these changes can be brought about by a number of factors, and we have listed the most common of these. 

  • Genetics: People who have a family history of breast cancer are more likely to be, at risk. There are gene mutations, like BRCA1 and BRCA2 that have been associated with an increased susceptibility, to developing breast cancer.
  • Age: Women over the age of 50 are at a higher risk.
  • Family History; If there has been a history of breast cancer in the family your risk of breast cancer is increased.
  • Hormones: Women who have early onset menstruation or late menopause have a higher risk due to prolonged exposure to estrogen and progesterone.
  • Radiation Exposure: Previous exposure to radiation, especially during chest radiation therapy before the age of 30, may increase the risk.

The Treatment of Breast Cancer

Surgery: Surgery is often the first line of treatment and may involve removing the tumor through a lumpectomy or mastectomy. 

  • Lumpectomy - High-energy beams are targeted at the affected breast to kill cancer cells or prevent their growth.
  • Mastectomy - Radioactive material is placed directly inside or very close to the cancer.

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy involves powerful drugs that target rapidly dividing cells throughout the body. It may be given before surgery (neoadjuvant) or after surgery (adjuvant).
Hormone Therapy: Hormone therapy is used when tumors are hormone receptor-positive and aim to block hormones that promote their growth.
Targeted Therapy: Targeted therapy focuses on specific molecules involved in cancer growth and can be particularly effective in certain types of breast cancer. 

How to Prevent Breast Cancer?

Well, no prevention gives 100% assurance, but certain lifestyle choices and risk-reduction strategies may help lower the chances. These include:

  • Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle; Being overweight, especially after menopause, is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Engage in regular physical activity such as brisk walking and jogging. 
  • Limit Alcohol Consumption: If you choose to drink alcohol, limit your intake.
  • Breastfeeding: If you get a chance, consider breastfeeding. It has been linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer.
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT): If you are using hormone replacement therapy to treat menopausal symptoms, check for the potential risks and benefits with your healthcare provider. Long-term use may slightly increase the risk of breast cancer.

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