Breast cancer is one of the few cancers that can be detected by the patient at home through self-examination. The patient should become familiar with the shape, form and feel of her breasts so as to recognise any changes, such as lumps. Regular self-examination can help to detect breast cancer early before it spreads, which usually accounts for more successful treatment. Some things to note regarding self-examination include:
- Breast self-examination should be done monthly, preferably about a week after the last menstrual period starts.
- If the patient no longer has menses, she should perform breast self-examination on the same day of each month, for example the first of every month.
During self-examination, the patient should look out for:
- A lump, swelling, or thickening in the breast or underarm area
- Changes in the size or shape of one breast
- Puckering or dimpling of the skin of the breast or nipple
- Persistent rash or change in the skin around the nipple
- Recent changes in the nipple, eg. inversion, retraction
- Any bleeding or unusual discharge from the nipple
- Skin redness or soreness of the breast
- Accentuated veins on the surface of the breast
- Unusual swelling of one upper arm
- Any enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit and collarbone areas
Look for visible changes in the breasts and nipples by turning them slowly from side to side and feel for changes in the breasts, underarm, and collarbone areas.
If you notice a lump in your breast, or if you suspect that you may have breast cancer, it is advisable to consult a doctor and undergo in-depth tests such as a mammogram.
A mammogram is a screening procedure that uses a special machine to take x-ray pictures of the breast. The x-ray pictures make it possible to detect cancerous tumours that cannot be felt by hand, or lumps in the breast that are not yet cancerous but may grow into cancerous tumours. The mammogram is currently one of the most reliable screening tools for breast cancer. Regular mammograms can help detect breast cancer early, thus allowing for early treatment. It is recommended for women between 40 – 49 years old to take annual mammograms.
A breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is a special screening procedure that takes images of the breast using strong magnetic fields and radio waves. A breast MRI is not a replacement for a mammogram. It is used as a supplemental tool to mammograms, usually when there is an abnormality on the mammogram that cannot be conclusively determined as a cancerous lump.
A breast MRI can be used to provide the doctor with detailed information on the position of the cancer as it creates images of the breast tissue. It is also used to check the site after treatment to determine if the cancer still remains.
In some cases, a breast MRI is used to screen for breast cancer in women who are at high risk of breast cancer, such as those who have a family history of breast cancer or younger women due to higher breast tissue density.