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What are the Symptoms of Breast Cancer? Here's How You Can Check.

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

How to Check Yourself for Breast Cancer

In 2020, breast cancer surpassed lung cancer to become the most common cancer in people across the globe.

It is also the leading cancer diagnosed in American women by far, and responsible for the second-most cancer-related deaths in women in the U.S.[1]

More than 3.7 million women in the U.S. live with breast cancer.

Based on data from the National Cancer Institute, about 12.9-percent of women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with some form of breast cancer over the course of their lifetime.[2] In 2022 alone, it is estimated that 287,850 new cases of breast cancer have been diagnosed across the country so far. Figures estimate that more than 3.7 million women in the U.S. live with breast cancer.

These numbers are significant enough to mean that every woman should be aware of the risks of breast cancer, as well as the best ways to prevent and identify the disease early on.

Most breast cancer diagnoses are among women who are over 50 years old. Data shows that breast cancer rates among American women begin increasing more significantly after age 40 and peaks around age 70.[3] As you age it is more important to be aware of changes and your increased risk of breast cancer.

Do I have breast cancer? How to tell if you do

The only way to officially know if you have breast cancer is through breast cancer screenings and having it diagnosed by a medical doctor.

There are signs and symptoms you can look for and self-check procedures (which are covered below) you can use initially. If you self-check yourself and notice something that concerns you, you should contact your doctor and report what you’ve found. Self-exams are very important in catching breast cancer at an early stage.

Know the risk factors for breast cancer

Knowing the risk factors behind breast cancer is an important part of reducing your risk of getting it, especially if you are someone who is at higher-risk from genetics and/or age.

These are some of the most common risk factors associated with breast cancer[5]:

Age. Risk increases with age; after menopause the risk of breast cancer increases significantly.

Family history of breast cancer. A first-degree relative with a diagnosed case of breast cancer before the age of 50 increases your risk of getting it yourself.

● Women with a mother or sister who has had breast cancer are at greater risk of the disease.

Genetic factors are found to be the cause of 5-10 percent of breast cancer diagnoses.

Personal history of other cancers.

Obesity. Fat produces estrogen in the body which increases the risk of developing breast cancer.

Excess alcohol intake can cause breast tissue to become damaged and increases the risk of developing cancer.

There are no surefire ways to prevent breast cancer, but knowing whether or not you are at increased risk for breast cancer can help you better understand the situation with your doctor. Additionally, there are certain benchmarks — like age — when you know to be more diligent about checking for signs and symptoms of breast cancer.

Be aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer

Early detection is a key factor in the successful treatment of breast cancer. While the best way to check for the disease is to see your doctor on a regular basis and perform regular self-exams, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer so that you can monitor any changes in your own breasts.

Many women who have breast cancer do not experience any symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Symptoms that appear in the early stage of breast cancer are often indistinguishable from those found in benign tumors.

For this reason, it is important to see a healthcare provider if you are experiencing any of the signs and symptoms listed below.

The warning signs of breast cancer may include[4]:

● Breast lumps or thickening (especially a mass that grows over six weeks);

● Fluid coming from the nipple (white discharge, redness, swelling, pain);

● Nipple retraction;

● A change in the size or shape of the breast;

● Changes in the skin of the breast such as rashes or discolored skin;

● Pain or tenderness that is not normal for you;

Since many of the early symptoms of breast cancer are very similar to the symptoms associated with benign breast conditions, it is important for women to monitor their own breasts closely and report any changes to their healthcare providers.

If you notice any of the above symptoms, it is important that you see your healthcare provider as soon as possible to get an expert opinion on the possible cause. If your healthcare provider determines that your symptoms are not caused by cancer or another serious condition, you may need to keep an eye on your symptoms to ensure that they do not get worse over time.

Follow medical recommendations

When it comes to general guidelines to preventing and screening for breast cancer, women should follow the advice of healthcare professionals. This is especially for women who fall into a higher-risk category and require earlier and/or more frequent screenings.

Regular cancer screenings are the most effective way to diagnose breast cancer early. Breast cancer screenings allow you to discover cancer even when you have no symptoms or signs of it.

Since age is a major factor in getting breast cancer, practitioners generally recommend cancer screening frequency based on the age group you fall into[6]:

● 21-39: Talk to your healthcare provider to identify if you are at a higher risk for breast cancer. Young Black women are at a higher risk of getting triple-negative breast cancer. If not, cancer screenings are not necessary, though regular self-screening is recommended.

● 40-49: This is the age when it is recommended for all women to begin annual breast cancer screenings with mammograms. If you’re a higher risk candidate for breast cancer, you should develop a testing plan with your provider according to your needs. You may need to perform other testing along with mammograms.

● 50-54: Women should continue to receive annual breast cancer screenings with mammograms. Higher risk patients should have a specific plan for their health needs.

● 55-64: At age 55, you can talk to your doctor about receiving a mammogram every two years or continuing to get one annually.

● 65 and up: The highest rates of breast cancer diagnoses come in this age range, so it is still important to receive annual or bi-annual screenings. Be sure to discuss your screening plans with a provider based on your risk factors.

At every age, awareness of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer is crucial. If you notice any significant changes to your breasts, you should immediately consult a healthcare professional about it.

Self-check for breast cancer

According to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, around 40-percent of breast cancer diagnoses originate from women noticing a lump in their breast during a self check at home.[7] Establishing a routine of self-checking for breast cancer (which is recommended to do monthly at any age) increases your awareness of any changes in your breast that may be indicators of breast cancer.

The three main ways recommended for performing sel-exams for breast cancer are: in the shower, standing in front of the mirror, and lying down.[8]

1. Checking for breast cancer in the shower

When you check yourself for breast cancer, you’ll use the flat area of your three middle fingers. Checking yourself in the shower allows for a smoother motion when you slide your hand across the areas you’re examining. It’s recommended to get your hands soapy first.

Raise your hand behind your head on one side of your body so that you can check your armpit and entire breast area. Gently apply pressure as you check yourself to feel for lumps or unusual thickness. Repeat on the other side.

2. Examining your breasts in front of the mirror

Performing a self-exam in the mirror allows you to look for the physical symptoms of breast cancer. Start by simply standing in front of the mirror with your arms relaxed by your side. Take a look for any physical changes in shape, size, color, and other changes.

Next, perform a visual check in different positions. With your hands on your hips, contract your chest muscles and turn from side to side. Take note of the shape of your breasts. Then, bend forward and roll your shoulders forward to allow your breasts to fall forward as well.

Return to a standing position. Place your hands behind your head and press them against the back of your head. Turn your body from side to side, taking note especially of the contour under your breasts. Finally, check the nipple of each breast with your thumb and forefinger. Place them on the area surrounding the nipple and gently pull the nipple outward, looking for any discharge.

3. Self-check for breast cancer while laying down

Doing a check while lying down allows you to feel different areas of the breast because the breast tissue spreads out evenly on your chest. Starting on your right side, put your right arm behind your head. Place a pillow under your right shoulder.

Similar to the exam in the shower, you’ll use the flat area of your three middle fingers to check the breast area and armpit. When checking the breast, move your fingers in circular motions, starting outward and moving inward. Repeat on the left side.


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