Breast Cancer – Signs, Causes, and Self-Examination

Breast Cancer – Signs, Causes, and Self-Examination

As the name indicates, breast cancer is cancer that originates from the breast tissue. It happens when cells of the breast tissue mutate and become abnormal, and this mutation causes them to grow at an uncontrollable rate resulting in the eventual formation of a dysfunctional mass. Like most cancers, it may metastasize, which means the cancerous cells can cause other kinds of tissue, like bone and brain, to be involved. It spreads to these other parts of the body by way of blood, or more commonly lymph (the fluid that flows through the lymphatic system).

The Causes of Breast Cancer

As mentioned above, breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells in your breast divide and multiply. But doctors do not know exactly what causes this process to begin in the first place.

However, research indicates that there are several risk factors that may increase your chances of developing breast cancer. These may include:

  • Age

Being 55 or older increases your risk for breast cancer.

  • Sex

Women are much more likely to develop breast cancer than men.

  • Family history and genetics

If you have family members or other close relatives who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, you are more likely to develop the disease at some point in your life. About 5% to 10% of breast cancers can be caused by single abnormal genes that are passed down from parents to children, and that can be discovered by genetic testing. They are called BRCA 1 and BRCA 2.

 A fun fact is that Angelina Jolie has had a preventive mastectomy since she has the breast cancer gene.

  • Smoking 

Tobacco use has been linked to many different types of cancer, including breast cancer.

  • Alcohol use

Research indicates that drinking alcohol can increase your risk for certain types of breast cancer.

  • Obesity

Being obese can increase your risk of breast cancer and breast cancer recurrence.

  • Radiation exposure

If you have had prior radiation therapy — especially to certain parts of the body including the head, neck or chest — you are more likely to develop breast cancer.

  • Hormone replacement therapy

People who use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer.

In addition to these, there are many other factors that can increase your chances of developing breast cancer. Talking to a healthcare professional will help you find out if you are at risk.

Additionally, it is equally important to debunk some myths. Contrary to popular belief, recent research indicates that wearing or not wearing a bra has not been found to be linked to breast cancer.

Self-Examination for Breast Cancer

Early diagnosis can help make breast cancer more treatable and avoid metastasis. Self-examination is very important in this regard as it can help with the early detection of any abnormal lump in the breast.

How You Prepare for Self-Examining Your Breasts:

  • Ask your physician for help

Before you start your self-examination, it is helpful to discuss the steps and potential findings with a healthcare professional.

  • If you are on your period, pick a time in your cycle when your breasts don’t hurt.

It is best to perform a self-examination when you are not menstruating but if you want to do one anyway, makes sure your breast are not already painful to touch as this is a common ailment during menstruation. It happens because of fluctuating hormonal levels, even the appearance of your breasts may vary during different times of your cycle. Healthcare professionals advise that you perform a self-examination the week right after your period.


The Steps of Self-Examination of Breasts:

You can sit or stand during the exam. You must perform it without a shirt on and face a mirror with your arms by your side. To start, inspect your breasts in the mirror and do the following:

  • Face forward and notice any:
    • Puckering
    • Dimpling
    • Changes In Size
    • Shape
    • Symmetry
  • Notice if your nipples are turned inwards, also called inverted nipples.
  • Inspect your breasts while pressing your hand down on your hip. This motion tenses the muscles under the breast so that any changes under the subcutaneous fat may become visible.
  • Inspect your breasts with your arms raised above your head.
  • Lift your breasts to see if the ridges on the underside are symmetrical.

2. Use Your Hands to Examine Your Breasts

Common methods to perform a manual self-examination of the breast include:
  • Lying down.

You can choose a bed or any other flat, comfortable surface to lie down on your back. Lying down is a preferred method as it causes your breast to spread out making the tissue thinner which makes it easier to feel any abnormalities underneath.

  • In the shower

This is another option. You should lather your fingers and breasts with soap so that your fingers glide smoothly over your skin.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind whilst examining your breast with your fingers:

  • Use the pads of your fingers.

It is best to use the most sensitive part of your hands to examine your breast to notice even the most minute changes. Healthcare professionals recommend using the pads of your three middle fingers. However, if you feel that this is difficult or not the most sensitive area of your hand you can use the palm or back of your fingers instead.

  • Use different pressure levels.

It is recommended that you use different levels of pressure to make sure you do not miss anything. As pathologies in your breast can lie in three areas

  • Right under the skin, in the subcutaneous tissue
  • Inside the breast tissue
  • Under the breast tissue, near the muscles and ribcage

Therefore, using light, medium and firm pressure on all areas of the breast is recommended. If you are unable to differentiate between the levels of pressure, you can ask your healthcare provider for help.

  • Take your time.

If you rush this process, you might miss some key findings which is why it is okay if it takes you several minutes to perform the exam.

  • Follow a pattern.

You will find that it is extremely helpful to establish a pattern whilst doing this exam. At a hospital, health care professionals follow a circular motion, starting outward near the armpit and moving their hand in a circular fashion until it reaches the nipple. Such a pattern makes sure you do not miss anything. You may move clockwise or anti-clockwise as long as you cover the entire area of the breast.

The Interpretation of the Results

As mentioned before, some changes that occur in the appearance and texture of the breast can be attributed to your menstrual cycle. This is why some lumps or changes in appearance are not always a reason to panic! Breast tissue can feel different in different areas. Some changes may also occur because of age. However, some signs and symptoms are always attributed to the pathological origin, these include:

  • A hard lump or knot near your underarm
  • Thickening or prominent fullness that is different from the surrounding tissue
  • Dimples, puckers, bulges or ridges on the skin of your breast
  • A recent change in a nipple to become pushed in (inverted) instead of sticking out
  • Redness, warmth, swelling or pain
  • Itching, scales, sores or rashes
  • Bloody nipple discharge

Your doctor may recommend additional tests and procedures to investigate breast changes, including a clinical breast exam, mammogram and ultrasound, this is called a triple assessment and it is the best way to get to an accurate diagnosis.

Main Symptoms to Hint Breast Cancer

  • A hard lump or knot near your underarm
  • Thickening or prominent fullness that is different from the surrounding tissue
  • Dimples, puckers, bulges or ridges on the skin of your breast
  • A recent change in a nipple to become pushed in (inverted) instead of sticking out
  • Redness, warmth, swelling or pain
  • Itching, scales, sores or rashes
  • Bloody nipple discharge

The Emotional Impact of Breast Cancer and How to Cope with A Diagnosis

Diagnosis of breast cancer can be devastating and can trigger several adverse reactions for many women. This is why emotional support is extremely important if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

It is common to develop symptoms of psychological distress such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, pain, difficulty concentrating, social isolation, sexuality concerns, and self-blame following the diagnosis. However, it is important to realize that you are not alone and that several forms of support exist.  Women with breast cancer tend to adopt several strategies to cope with the diagnosis and redefine themselves and their lives accordingly and maintain a positive outlook. Positive cognitive restructuring, wishful thinking, yoga, and physical exercise are some of the recommended activities that can help you stay hopeful and productive after a diagnosis. All of these habits have been linked to the better emotional outcomes and are highly suggested if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with breast cancer – Know that there is hope out there!

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