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HomeBlogBreast cancer: award yourself a pink ribbon by performing regular self-examinations and learning to understand common changes

Breast cancer: award yourself a pink ribbon by performing regular self-examinations and learning to understand common changes

By: Medix Team
Breast cancer: award yourself a pink ribbon by performing regular self-examinations and learning to understand common changes

Finding a lump in one of your breasts, or noticing a sudden change is something that every woman dreads. Yet the reality is that, in most instances, there’s nothing to worry about and everything to be gained from performing regular checks.

Do you regularly check your breasts for any unusual changes? Across the world there is, unfortunately, still a big disparity in breast cancer death rates between countries where there have been high profile campaigns to promote self-examinations and those that haven’t.


And yet even in countries with high levels of awareness, there are still too many women making their first visit to the doctor when cancer is already at an advanced stage. Lives can be saved if women perform regular checks and don’t ignore unusual changes hoping they’ll go away.


Checking your breasts is simple and straightforward. The best time to do it is once a month about a week after your period starts when your breasts will be at their least tender. If you’ve already hit the menopause, then pick one set day each month.


Stand in front of a mirror and take a look for any visible changes from the front and sides. Is there a lump, wrinkled skin, or nipple discharge?


Then lie down, raise your arm above your head and use your middle three fingers to press firmly in a circular motion, checking your breasts, armpits and nipples for lumps and other unusual changes.


It’s always best to make a doctor’s appointment if something seems amiss. Here are some of the most common reasons for breast changes to watch out for:



1. Fibrocystic breast changes


This is extremely common and it’s estimated that half of women will experience it before they hit the menopause and also afterwards if they take hormone replacement therapy (HRT).


Fibrosis is a type of breast lump that’s made from the tissue, which joints are made from. Breasts feel lumpy and can become painful and swollen, particularly just before your period starts.


Roughly one quarter of breast lumps turn out to be a fluid-filled sac called a cyst. They can be large or small and hormones can make them change in size.


They can also become tender to the touch, especially if they’ve become infected.


If you’ve previously been diagnosed with a cyst, which starts to turn red or become inflamed, then it’s important to go and see a doctor straight away. In the worst-case scenario, an infected cyst can turn into an abscess, causing life-threatening sepsis.


Antibiotics are the first course of action. Cysts can also be drained and surgically removed under local anaesthetic if they keep returning to the same spot.


Fibrocystic breast changes do not increase breast cancer risk. But it’s important to see your doctor if you develop new or different lumps after receiving an initial diagnosis.


2. Fat necrosis and oil cysts


Both of these conditions occur when the breast’s fatty tissue is damaged.


Fat necrosis creates hard lumps and is diagnosed through a biopsy, as it’s difficult to tell the difference between breast cancer and scar tissue on a mammogram.


Oil cysts form when the fat cells release their contents into fluid-formed sacs. This can also cause bruising and redness. This type of cyst is diagnosed through an ultrasound, although doctors may also perform a needle biopsy, which helps to drain the contents too.  


3. Fibroadenoma


This is the most common type of benign breast tumour, formed from connective tissue (fibroma) and glandular tissue (adenoma).


Younger women are most prone to them as they’re often tied to birth control pills and fluctuating hormones. Post-menopausal women on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) can also get them too.


Fibroadenomas are generally moveable and aren’t tender. Doctors typically recommend removing fast-growing ones especially if they’re changing the breast shape.


About 15% of fibroademonas are categorised as complex and pose a slightly increased breast cancer risk.


One particular type of fibroadenoma called a phyllode tumour can also be malignant in some instances. A woman is most likely to get one in her forties. Doctors generally recommend removing some of the surrounding tissue to ensure that the tumour doesn’t come back.


4. Adenosis


Women who suffer from fibrosis or cysts are also more prone to adenosis, a swelling of the milk glands.


It’s sometimes possible to feel a lump, but adenosis is often detected via a mammogram then diagnosed through a biopsy. Treatment is often unnecessary.


5. Intraductal papilloma


These wart-like tumours grow in the milk ducts and are formed from a mix of glandular and fibrous tissue. They tend to be tan-pink in colour and typically small.


They often cause nipple discharge, which can be either bloody or clear and happen spontaneously (when there hasn’t been any pressure on the breast).


After being surgically excised, the tumours will then checked by a pathologist as atypical or multiple papilloma do pose a slightly increased risk of breast cancer.


6. Ductal or lobular hyperplasia


These result from an overgrowth of the cells lining the tubes (ductal) inside the breast that carry milk from the lobules (milk sacs) to the nipples, or in the milk glands themselves (lobular).


They’re normally only detected during a mammogram, with confirmation via a biopsy. Mild hyperplasia poses no breast cancer risk, but moderate or atypical hyperplasia does so doctors usually remove some of the surrounding tissue for additional checks.  


7. Mastitis


This painful condition is one of the potential side effects of breast-feeding, although it can strike at any time. It’s caused by torn skin over the nipples, or a clogged milk duct.  Most sufferers will typically have a fever in addition to inflammation.


Warm water or compresses are a good way to alleviate the pain before seeing a doctor for a round of antibiotics.


If these don’t make any difference, then a biopsy will be next to rule out inflammatory breast cancer. This is a very rare form of breast cancer, accounting for less than 5% of cases in most countries.

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