Self-breast examinations: What should a woman look for?

By Dr. Shashta Sawh

( Dr. Shashta Sawh is a breast physician with Pink Hibiscus Breast Health Specialists  in Port of Spain, Trinidad.)
( Dr. Shashta Sawh is a breast physician with Pink Hibiscus Breast Health Specialists in Port of Spain, Trinidad.)

As we move through breast cancer awareness month, there is no doubt a lot of hustling and bustling occurs with events raising awareness for the fight against breast cancer. There is much talk about breast health and what should and should not be done to ensure healthy breasts as this time serves as the perfect forum to capture the attention of many women. Self-breast examinations and screening with mammography becomes the highlight but for many women the key questions is “what should I look for?’

Self-breast examinations are very important in understanding your breast tissue and how they change at different times of the month and even as you get older.  Breasts will change as one moves through puberty into the reproductive and post-menopausal years. It is for this very reason being able to know your breasts is crucial so in the event any changes occur which is not deemed as normal for you can be assessed by your doctor or breast specialist. In many instances, these changes may fall under normal variations or benign changes at different points in your life. But for some, breast changes may not be so innocent. It can be an indicator of abnormal changes and a sign of breast cancer.

Examining one’s breast not only entails feeling the breast tissue but it also includes looking at and inspecting the breasts.  Looking at changes in the shape and size of your breasts, the skin, nipple changes and discharge and ultimately anything that is deemed as different from your normal should be assessed at a specialist breast clinic.   The feel of normal breast tissue can range from smooth to very lumpy. However, understanding your breasts and how they feel is critical in identifying differences. Women who have very lumpy breasts may need to be more meticulous with knowing what their “normal lumps “are and in detecting any changes or the presence of new lumps.

Whilst the most common and expected presentation by many women for breast cancer   is a lump, it is valuable to note it is not the only sign.  Skin changes such as dimpling or a pitted appearance referred to as peau d’orange, redness or increase warmth of the skin overlying the breasts may be signalling that something is wrong.  Nipple changes such as a rash, inversion or a discharge, changes in the shape and feel of the breasts are all also very important.  Some women may have symptoms and signs that they believe is an infection of the breast when in fact they may be presenting with signs of an inflammatory breast cancer. I have seen this often misdiagnosed where patients are given antibiotics for a condition that is much more detrimental than a breast infection. Such changes should never be taken lightly and specialist breast care should be sought.

The valuable information from getting to know your breasts, both from the physical appearance and how they feel, is the best way to start to identifying changes. The earliest signs of breast cancer can be detected by the patient themselves even before visiting their breast specialist for annual examinations and mammography. Early detection of breast cancer is the key to having a far better prognosis, better quality of life and saving lives.