Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK and there are currently around 55,000 women diagnosed with it each year. That equates to one person every 10 minutes. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives, although over 80% of women are still alive five years after diagnosis.
The increase in survival rates is partly due to better awareness amongst women and the introduction of screening programmes for the most at risk groups. Breast Cancer Care states that the biggest risk factor to women is age, with over 81% of breast cancers occurring in women over the age of 50, so women between the ages of 50 and 70 will be invited for screenings once every three years.
However, women outside of these age groups are not regularly checked for breast cancer and yet could still become affected. This means that the onus lies on them to conduct self-checks regularly in their own homes and to speak to their doctor if they find anything of concern.
Your home check
The most important part of checking your breasts is to get to know what is normal for you. Breasts can be naturally lumpy, wrinkly or uneven in shape, so getting to know your breasts is the first step in finding out if something has changed with them. They can also change during your menstrual cycle, so get to know what they are like then too.
There is no right and wrong way to check, but here are some things you can try:
- Look in a mirror so you can see all of your breasts. Try holding your arm up in the air and moving them around to see every angle of your breasts.
- Run your opposite hand over your breast, getting to know all your usual lumps and bumps.
- Feel under your armpit too and notice where the breast tissue changes to skin tissue.
When you have got to know your breasts, really you are just looking for any changes to the ‘norm’. These can include:
- Changes in size or outline
- Changes in the skin such as dimpling or puckering
- Pain in a breast
- A lump, bumpy area or thickening in one part of the breast that is not present in the other breast
- Changes in nipple position and angle
- Rashes around the nipples
- Red areas on the nipples that do not heal up
- Bleeding from the nipple
- Discharge from the nipple that is not milky
In most cases, lumps found in the breasts are not cancerous, but if you notice any changes it is better to get it checked out by your GP than to leave it unexplored.
Action to take
If you think you have noticed a change, you need to see a doctor straight away. They should set up a referral for you and organise further testing to confirm or deny if the lump is actually a tumour. However, even the professionals have difficulty detecting and diagnosing tumours sometimes, so if you are unhappy with the diagnosis, it is your right to obtain a second opinion.
Unfortunately, because of the difficulty in diagnosing this most common form of cancer, one in ten claims for compensation by a clinical negligence solicitor are in relation to breast cancer. Whilst almost half of these were unsuccessful cases because no clinical error was identified, it does go to show how difficult it can be to accurately diagnose cancer and how important it is to go with your gut feeling, if you have been carrying out your checks at home.