Breast cancer: signs, symptoms, how to check breasts, and who can get a screening?

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Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK, predominantly affecting women over the age of 50.

However, the tragic death of Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding, aged 39, will be a stark reminder to all women that it can happen to anyone.

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About 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. There’s a good chance of recovery if it’s detected at an early stage.

So, what should you look out for as signs of breast cancer - and how do you check your boobs properly?

Here is everything you should know about checking your breasts and what treatments are used if you have breast cancer.

What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

It is important to look AND feel, as breast cancer can show itself in many different ways:

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  • Check for any changes to the shape of our breast, this includes dimples, nipple inversion, or a rash forming on or near the nipple area. 
  • Bloody discharge from your nipple is also a sign, as well as a milky or watery discharge unrelated to breastfeeding.
  • Lumps on your breast, underarms, collarbone or on your sides, near your breast. 
  • Constant unusual pain in your breast or armpit.

If you are in any doubt or have noticed any other changes to your breast, contact your GP and continue to check for any additional changes.

Who is most at risk of breast cancer?

While breast cancer can affect men and women, it is largely women over the age of 50 who are most susceptible to breast cancer.

In the UK, 1 in 7 women will experience breast cancer in their lifetime and 400 men are diagnosed every year.

Other factors which can increase your likelihood are:

  • Age – the risk increases as you get older
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Previous diagnosis of breast cancer
  • Previous non-cancerous (benign) breast lump
  • Being tall, overweight or obese
  • Drinking alcohol

More than three-quarters of people (76%) survive breast cancer for a decade or more after their diagnosis, however 11,400 people die of breast cancer in the UK every year.

That’s 31 people every day.

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How often should I check my breasts and what how do I check properly?

Women should check their breasts every month, charities such as Cop-a-feel send reminders each month for women who sign up to the ‘self-checkout’ alerts.

To check your breasts:

Learn your own normal - everyone’s breasts are different shapes, sizes and will look and feel different.

When checking for breast changes, look for visual changes and then feel them with a gentle touch. Use a firm, smooth touch with the first few finger pads of your hand, keeping the fingers flat and together. Use a circular motion, about the size of a quarter.

Cover the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side — from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage.

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Follow a pattern to be sure that you cover the whole breast. You can begin at the nipple, moving in larger and larger circles until you reach the outer edge of the breast. You can also move your fingers up and down vertically, in rows, as if you were mowing a lawn. This up-and-down approach seems to work best for most women. Be sure to feel all the tissue from the front to the back of your breasts: for the skin and tissue just beneath, use light pressure; use medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts; use firm pressure for the deep tissue in the back. When you’ve reached the deep tissue, you should be able to feel down to your ribcage.

You should repeat this process while lying and standing, so as to feel the tissue as it is positioned differently on the chest.

What happens after I raise a breast abnormality with my GP?

According to the NHS, your GP should full examine your breast and may refer you to a breast specialist for further examination and tests.

This might include breast screening (mammography) or taking a small sample of breast tissue to be examined under a microscope (a biopsy).

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Mammographic screening, where X-ray images of the breast are taken, is the most commonly available way of finding a change in your breast tissue (lesion) at an early stage.

However, you should be aware that a mammogram might fail to detect some breast cancers.

Women with a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer may be offered screening and genetic testing for the condition.

As the risk of breast cancer increases with age, all women who are 50 to 70 years old are invited for breast cancer screening every three years.

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Women over the age of 70 are also entitled to screening and can arrange an appointment through their GP or local screening unit.

The NHS is in the process of extending the programme as a trial, offering screening to some women aged 47 to 73.

Different types of breast cancer

There are several different types of breast cancer, which develop in different parts of the breast.

The most common type of breast cancer is invasive breast cancer, where the cancer cells have spread through the lining of the ducts into the surrounding breast tissue and causes a lump.

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Non-invasive breast cancer (carcinoma in situ) is found in the ducts of the breast, it has not spread into the ducts of the breast and therefore, rarely causes a lump.

Other, less common types of breast cancer include invasive (and pre-invasive) lobular breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer, and Paget’s disease of the breast.

Breast cancer can spread to other parts of the body, usually through the blood or the axillary lymph nodes – small lymphatic glands that filter bacteria and cells from the mammary gland.

If this happens, it is known as secondary, or metastatic, breast cancer. Secondary cancer is not curable, so the aim of treatment is to relieve symptoms.

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Treating breast cancer

If cancer is detected at an early stage, it can be treated before it spreads to other parts of the body.

Breast cancer is treated using a combination of:

  • surgery - to remove as much or all of the tumour or cancerous cells
  • chemotherapy - medicine is used to kill cancer cells
  • radiotherapy - involves giving high doses of radiation beams directly into a tumor. The radiation beams change the DNA makeup of the tumor, causing it to shrink or die

Surgery is usually the first type of treatment you’ll have, followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy or, in some cases, hormone or targeted treatments.

The type of surgery and the treatment you have afterwards will depend on the type of breast cancer you have. Your doctor should discuss the best treatment plan with you.

For more information on all things breast cancer, take a look at the information and resources shared by the NHS, Cop-a-feel, Cancer research UK and Breast Cancer Now.

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