While breast cancer remains the leading cause of death in women, the numbers have seen a steady decline thanks to breast cancer awareness efforts.
The Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer
If you are concerned about developing breast cancer, you should know what to look for. By familiarizing yourself this early with the feel of your normal breast, it will be easy for you to detect any abnormalities.
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc., here are the signs and symptoms that you should watch out for…
1) A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area
2) Changes in skin texture and/or larger size of pores in the breast skin (Often described as similar to an orange peel)
3) Unexplained changes in the size or shape of the breast
4) Presence of dimpling or unexplained swelling or shrinking of the breast (especially if it is found on one side only)
5) Asymmetry of the breasts when they were symmetrical before and occurring just recently
6) Nipple tenderness
7) Slight inversion or inward pointing of the nipple
8) Clear or bloody nipple discharge
The very first step to determining the possibility that you may have breast cancer is by performing breast self-examination. This is done monthly, preferably a few days after your period has ended, so that your breasts are no longer swollen and tender. It is best done after a shower, standing in front of a large mirror which fully shows the upper part of your body.
Step 1: Start by standing in front of the mirror with your arms on your hips and your shoulders straight.
See if your breasts are still same size, shape and color. They should be evenly shaped without any swelling or distortions. Take note if you see abnormal findings, such as skin dimpling, bulging or puckering. See if your nipples are at their normal position or if they have become inverted. Note also if there is any redness, rashes or soreness.
Step 2: Raise your arms above your head. Look for the same changes as in step one.
Step 3: Take each nipple between your fingers and squeeze gently. See if there are any discharges. Note if the discharge is milky, watery, yellowish, or bloody.
Step 4: While you are still standing up or sitting in front of the mirror, feel your breasts with the pads of your fingers. Use the left hand to feel the right breast and the right hand to feel the left breast. With a circular motion, feel your breast from the outer parts and the armpits going toward the nipple. Or you can also go by quadrant. Apply light pressure to the front of your breasts, middle pressure for the middle, and heavy pressure for the back of the breasts. What is important is that you cover the entire breast area including your armpits. Palpate for any lumps. If you find any lumps or areas of tenderness, take note of its location.
Step 5: Finally, lie down. Similar to Step 5, feel the entire areas of your breast including your armpits with the pads of your fingers. Take note of any lumps or areas of soreness.
If you have found any abnormalities, do not delay. Go to your doctor for a check-up.
Doctor’s Breast and Physical Examination
At your doctor’s clinic, he/she will also do a breast examination to confirm your findings. In addition, he/she will conduct a thorough physical exam to determine if there are any signs of cancer spread (metastasis) in other parts of your body. He/she may also ask if you are experiencing any symptoms which may be attributed to cancer spread.
Once he/she has confirmed your findings on self-examination, he/she will order imaging tests.
Imaging Tests for Breast Cancer
All imaging tests serve similar purposes – to give a better visualization of the cancer, determine if there are abnormal findings in other parts of the breast or spread to other parts of the body, and determine the best locations by which to perform a biopsy.
Here are the imaging tests commonly being ordered for breast cancer:
A mammogram is simply a breast x-ray. There are two types of mammograms.
Screening mammograms are recommended in women 40 years old and above every 1 to 2 years. It is also recommended in women younger than age 40 who have risk factors for breast cancer. Screening mammograms serve the purpose of visualizing microcalcifications or calcium clusters (which may be a sign of precancerous cells or early cancer) or lumps which are not yet palpable.
Diagnostic mammograms are used to provide a better visualization of lumps or other abnormalities that have been detected on breast examination.
2) Breast Ultrasound
Using sound waves, breast ultrasound enables the physician to better visualize the breast changes that are not visible on mammogram. It can also aid in distinguishing between solid tumors from fluid-filled cysts.
3) Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
Breast MRI utilizes a combination of radio waves and magnets. As the body’s tissues absorb the radio waves, they form patterns which a computer combines to form a detailed picture of the breast. Prior to performing the procedure, the contrast fluid gadolinium is injected into a vein before or during the scan in order to provide the best visualization and evaluation of the cancer and the extent to which it has spread.
Also called a galactogram, this procedure entails the induction of a contrast fluid through a very fine metal tube which has been inserted into a nipple duct where discharges originate. It allows a clear visualization of the duct and any masses inside the duct on x-ray. While the tube is still in place, sample fluids are collected to determine if there are any bacteria or other infection causing agents or cancer cells.
With the lump or abnormality clearly visualized, a doctor can now make a decision on where he/she should collect specimens for biopsy. Biopsies may involve taking a sample from the lump and/or removing some lymph nodes in the armpits to determine if there is spread.
Make breast self-examination a part of your health routine. By checking your breasts monthly, it will enable you to detect any changes or abnormalities so that you can seek medical help. Again, the earlier the detection of breast cancer, the faster is treatment performed and the better are the chances for survival.