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Focus on Breasts: It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month!

Focus on Breasts: It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month!

1. How would I know that I may have breast cancer? What are the signs?

A very important part of breast health is knowing how your breasts usually look. The most common symptom of breast cancer is a lump or mass in or around your breast. These breast lumps are normally rock hard, most are painless but some can also be painful.  Some lumps can also be soft and that is why it is vital to have all breast lumps checked out as soon as possible. Another good thing to know is that not all lumps are cancerous – cysts that often cause breast  lumps can also be benign (non cancerous).   
Keep in mind that changes in your breasts occur around the time that you are menstruating causing lumpiness. If you do regular breast examinations at home, you will become familiar with the changes in your breasts around ovulation and menstruation and they will be less likely to worry you.

Look out for any swelling in or around your breast, armpit or collarbone which can spread to the underarm lymph nodes. Skin dimpling or inflammation and redness, breast or nipple pain and breast warmth or itching are also symptoms to watch for. Nipple changes such as discharge, inverted nipples or flaky skin on the nipples (common in post menopausal women) are also signs of breast cancer.

If you notice any unusual changes in your breast, consult your GP or gynaecologist immediately for a proper evaluation. Remember EARLY DETECTION IS CRITICAL to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. Some doctors recommend that women aged 40 and over should get a MAMMOGRAM every year to detect breast cancer symptoms. However, this is controversial so please read up as much as you can about mammograms and discuss this with your trusted doctor before deciding what to do.

2. Can you get breast cancer from wearing a bra all the time?

There have been widespread rumours over recent years that wearing a bra can cause cancer. Popular breast cancer myths such as tight fitting bras, underwire bras, badly fitted bras, wearing a bra to bed or wearing one for many hours per day have many women worried. Let’s put your mind at ease and dispel these myths once and for all – there is no proven link  between wearing a bra and cancer. According to research there are epidemiologic studies which suggest that bras may not be directly linked to causing breast cancer. Make sure that you wear a bra that is comfortable and fits properly!

3. Is there a link between oral contraceptives (the Pill)  and breast cancer?

Studies suggest that the use of oral contraceptives (the Pill) can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, in particular if she has used them for more than five years. The risk level goes back to normal after five years if you discontinue using oral contraceptives. Your risk for breast cancer may be greater if you have a significant family history of breast cancer, or had breast biopsies showing abnormal cells and also increases with other risk factors such as smoking. Some contraceptive pills have a stronger risk of breast cancer than others, so if you are concerned, please talk to your doctor or the staff at your family planning clinic – and do your own research online. 

4. Does smoking cause cancer?

Smoking is a risk for many types of cancer such as lung, throat, mouth and laryx. There is some evidence that smoking causes breast cancer – studies do indicate that women who have smoked for a number of years are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Second hand smoke is also a contributing risk factor. If you’re a smoker, now is the time to quit to become a healthier you.

5. Does menstrual and reproductive history increase your risk of breast cancer?

Women who started their menstrual cycle early (before 12 years old) and began menopause after 55 years old tend to be at a higher risk. Women with no biological children or who had their first pregnancy after 30 are also at risk. The reason for this is because they have been exposed to the hormones estrogen and progesterone for longer. During pregnancy, your menstrual cycle is halted and there is a shift in the balance of hormones leaning more towards progesterone than estrogen, which reduces your risk.

6. What else can I do to prevent breast cancer?

There are certain lifestyle changes that you can do to reduce your risk of breast cancer.

• Eat a healthy, balanced diet and reduce your intake of processed and sugary foods. Eat organic as much as possible and avoid food additives like artificial sweeteners, colourants and preservatives and many of these have been linked with increased risk of cancer
• Maintain a healthy weight, avoid drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and get proper sleep
A strong immune system is one of the most important factors in cancer prevention. 
• If you have a baby, breastfeed if possible up until at least six months. Breastfeeding is good for you as well as your baby!
• There are certain herbs and foods that are high in anti-oxidants, which are known to have cancer fighting properties. Foods include tomatoes and other red and orange veggies, as well as black grapes (seeds in if possible!) 

How to do a breast self exam

It is important to give yourself a breast examination once a month to help detect breast lumps and cancer early.  You will become familiar with the shape and feel of your breasts and therefore be well equipped to detect any changes early on. Here is how you do a breast examination in 5 easy steps!
Step 1
Undress from the waist up and look at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and arms on your hips.   
Look for breasts that are their usual size, shape and colour. Check that your breasts are evenly shaped and that there isn’t any signs of swelling, redness, soreness, dimpling, bulging or puckering of the skin.  Carefully inspect your nipples for inverted nipples or whether they have changed position. If your nipples have always been inverted or your breasts have always been different sizes, it is not a problem. Remember , you are looking for CHANGES.

Step 2
Raise your arms and take a good look again for any of the changes we discussed in  in step 1

Step 3
Check for any signs of fluid or discharge coming out of your nipples. Place your finger and forefinger on the tissue surrounding the nipple and gently pull outward toward the end of the nipple. You are looking for a watery, milky, yellowish fluid or blood). If you are breastfeeding, breast milk is obviously not a problem!

Step 4
Now, lie down and feel your breasts – use your right hand to feel your left breast and your left hand to feel your right breast. Imagine your breast is a clock and starting at 12 o’ çlock, move toward 1 o’clock in small, circular motions. Use your finger pads and keep your fingers flat. Continue feeling your breast around the whole circle until you reach 12 0’çlock again. Move toward the nipple and complete another circle around the clock. Make sure that you cover your breast from top to bottom as well as upper outer areas that reach into your armpit. You can also move your fingers up and down in rows applying light pressure to the breast. Most women prefer to use the up and down approach – use the one that works best for you. It’s important that you feel all the tissue in the front and back of your breasts.

Step 5  
Lastly, you can either feel your breasts while standing or sitting. You can also do this while you are in the shower – many women find it easier to feel their breasts when they are slippery and wet.

If you do feel any breast lumps or abnormalities, do not be too alarmed. Not all lumps in the breast are cancerous and breast lumps are quite common. However, it is not a good idea to put your head under the sand and ignore breast lumps, hoping they will go away! Consult your doctor as soon as possible in order to rule out breast cancer! Breast health awareness is all about taking responsibility for caring for your breasts!

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