Knowing our own bodies, being familiar with how they look and how they feel, is a key factor in maintaining good general and sexual health. It is important to be aware of any changes in our bodies that may signal the beginning of an unwelcome condition.
With many conditions that we regard as serious, any unpleasant effects can be minimised if the conditions are identified early. This also means that any treatments can be more effective, simpler to provide, and less disruptive at the first stages of a condition.
Cancer is a condition that affects both men and women, and has many different forms. Two of the most common forms of cancer are testicular cancer in men (cancer in the balls) and breast cancer in women. These are also two of the most easily identified cancers and early diagnosis makes treatment of the conditions easier.
This is where knowing our bodies, and checking them regularly really comes into its own.
Women: Breast cancer
There is commonly used phrase – breast awareness. But what does being “breast aware” mean exactly?
Every woman’s breasts are individual to them. So, being breast aware is about getting to know what is normal for you; knowing how they look and how they feel. This includes different times throughout your monthly cycle – many women have lumpy, tender breasts just before their period, and soft breasts immediately afterwards.
It is unusual to find breast cancer in young women, but it becomes more common from around the age of 35 onwards. The vast majority of cases are found in women aged 50 or over. It is important, however to develop breast awareness soon after they have completed their development – early to mid 20s is a good time. You should check your breasts once a month.
When you first begin checking your breasts, notice their normal shape and size (it is not unusual for one to be larger than the other), the normal appearance and position of your nipples, and the normal feel of your breasts. When checking regularly, what you are really looking out for is any change that is unusual for you.
There are a number of changes to look for:
- Changes in size
- Changes in outline (any flattening)
- Any obvious lumps or thickening
- Any change in the position of the nipple (pulled in or pointing to the side)
- Puckering or dimpling of the skin
- Veins which stand out more than usual
- Blood or discharge from the nipple (some women can always produce a little clear or milky fluid which is normal for them)
- Any changes in sensation – particularly if it is new and one-sided
- Rash around the nipple
- Anything different from normal and not felt in the other breast
You should check your breasts by both looking and feeling.
Look at your breasts carefully from every angle. In front of a mirror, stand with your arms by your sides and look at each breast. Raise your arms over your head and look again at each breast and your armpits. Bring your arms down to your hips, press inwards tightening your chest muscles, and lean slightly forward.
You can do this in two ways. In the shower, raise one arm and use a soapy hand which will slide easily over the breast. Or you can lie down, balance your breast on your chest by tucking a towel or pillow under your shoulder and put one hand behind your head. Feel your right breast with your left hand, and your left breast with your right hand. You don’t need to squeeze or prod your breasts, just keep your fingers together and use the flat of your fingers. Press gently but firmly and move over the whole breast. Remember your breast tissue goes right up into your armpit, so check there too, as well as behind the nipple.
If you notice any of the changes mentioned, you should get in touch with your doctor. Most changes that happen in the breasts are not caused by cancer, but it’s important to check. The only way to be sure what is causing the change is to get it checked by a doctor. Whatever treatment, if any, is needed, it’s best done early.
There is an NHS breast screening programme that automatically invites women aged 50 – 64 to have a free mammogram (breast x-ray) every 3 years. Make sure you accept this invitation. Women over 64 are welcome to attend but you must request your free mammogram – see your doctor. Women under 50 are not included in the NHS Breast Screening Programme, so if you have any concerns about your breasts, see your doctor.
NHS Health Scotland and the Scottish Government are currently running a campaign to increase knowledge and understanding of of breast cancer awareness and signs to look for. For information go to : www.nhsinform.co.uk or call 0800 22 44 88 (Line open 8.00 a.m. to 10.00 p.m., 7 days a week).