There are 3,000 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in Ireland every year... here's what to watch for

Dr Michelle O'Driscoll dedicates her weekly column to breast cancer, to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this October
There are 3,000 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in Ireland every year... here's what to watch for

There are 3,000 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in Ireland every year and tragically almost 700 people lose their lives.

WHILE there are some positive statistics emerging around breast cancer in this country, such as survival rates of 85% percent and an annual 2% decrease in mortality rates, there is more to do.

There are 3,000 cases of breast cancer being diagnosed every year in this country, and almost 700 people losing their lives. Early detection is imperative to save lives, and ongoing campaigns and conversations are keeping it in the nation’s conscious awareness.

With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the media is currently awash with prompts and reminders to check your breasts. The Irish Cancer Society are asking us to “Care for your Pair,” and encouraging people to support one another in remembering to check regularly. High profile advocates have been actively promoting this campaign, while imploring others to do the same.

But what exactly is meant by “Caring for your Pair”? In general terms, we tend to know to look out for any lumps in our breasts, but exactly how to conduct a thorough self-examination is not information that is necessarily as widely known. 

Recent research shows that 61% of women between 25-44 don’t check their breasts, and don’t know how.

Here are some key things to watch for:

Instead of a classic lump there may be a thickening or swelling of the breast, or a change in size or shape which may also include the upper chest, collarbone or armpit.

Nipples may have a change in direction or shape, or become pulled in or flattened. Any nipple rash, or flaky/crusted skin on or around the nipple would warrant investigation, as would any pain in the breast or armpit area.

Dimpling, puckering or redness of the skin would also be something to investigate further.

It’s important to note that breast cancer is not the only possible cause of such changes; breast changes can sometimes be down to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, breastfeeding or menopause – all hormonally linked. You should know what’s normal for you, depending on where you are in your cycle for example. Anything that is not usual should be brought to your doctor’s attention. While it may well be nothing untoward, it should still be flagged.

So what is the best way to actually find such changes? An examination should ideally be a combination of visual (seeing changes by viewing yourself face on without a bra in the mirror) and feeling for changes (this can be done in the bath, shower or ideally lying down if bigger-breasted).

Upon visual examination it’s perfectly OK for one breast to be slightly different to the other, in terms of size or shape, but again it’s about knowing what’s normal for you. 

After checking straight on, it’s advisable to then check with your arms above your head, looking at both sides.

When physically examining the breasts, you should feel with the pulp or padded parts of the fingers rather then with the tips. You should press down on the tissue repeatedly moving around methodically. Examine the tissue all the way up to the chest wall, and in under the arm. Place the hand on the side you’re checking above your head. Then think of the breast as being divided into four quadrants, checking one at a time. Repeat on the other side, make sure to cover all the tissue, moving closer to the nipple at each rotation.

This process, although it feels lengthy, will become more intuitive each time you conduct it. You will become familiar with your own breasts and therefore any changes to the norm.

Use this month to get your regular monthly breast check underway, and take if from there with peace of mind that you’re Caring for your Pair.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company.

Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally.

See www.intuition.ie

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