What is breast self-awareness?

I don’t spend much time thinking about my “bosom buddies” except when I’m shopping for a bra or bathing suit (tasks I avoid at all costs). However, during October, when the world is awash in pink, it’s hard not to think about breast cancer. Statistics say approximately 1 in 8 women in the United States will get breast cancer at some point in their lifetime.

“Finding a cancer early gives you more options for treating it, and may increase your long term survival,” says Carly Searles, ARNP, from the Virginia Mason Breast Clinic. “We recommend a screening mammogram for women age 40 and older, a yearly clinical breast exam and breast self-awareness.”

So, how does one become more breast self-aware? Historically, a breast self-exam (BSE) was recommended for women once a month – usually after their period. But, some women found it awkward or stressed over doing the correct steps. Currently, it is OK for women to choose not to do the step-by-step BSE. But, this doesn’t mean ignoring one’s breasts until a new bra or bathing suit is needed.

“You don’t need to worry if you’re uncomfortable checking your breasts in a systematic way, like with a breast self-exam,” says Searles. “But you should notice how your breasts normally look and feel, so if any changes do occur, you can let your health care provider know right away.”

 The way breasts look and feel can be affected by getting a period, having children, losing or gaining weight, and taking certain medications. Breasts also tend to change with age. However, some warning signs to keep in mind are:

  •  New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
  •  Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
  •  Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
  •  Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or on the breast.
  •  Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
  •  Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
  •  Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
  • Pain that seems to concentrate in one area of the breast.

These signs don’t necessarily equal breast cancer. I once found a painful lump in my armpit that turned out to be a cyst, which is a noncancerous fluid-filled lump. And while I felt a little silly for automatically thinking I had cancer, the important thing is that I called my health care provider. By being aware and knowing it’s important to call your doctor, you don’t have to wait and wonder if you find a breast change that causes concern.


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