Breast cancer is the most common invasive cancer in women, and the second main cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer.
After puberty, a woman’s breast consists of fat, connective tissue, and thousands of lobules, tiny glands that produce milk for breast-feeding. Tiny tubes, or ducts, carry the milk toward the nipple.
In cancer, the body’s cells multiply uncontrollably. It is the excessive cell growth that causes cancer.
Breast cancer can be:
- Ductal carcinoma: This begins in the milk duct and is the most common type.
- Lobular carcinoma: This starts in the lobules.
Invasive breast cancer is when the cancer cells break out from inside the lobules or ducts and invade nearby tissue, increasing the chance of spreading to other parts of the body.
Non-invasive breast cancer is when the cancer is still inside its place of origin and has not broken out. However, these cells can eventually develop into invasive breast cancer.
The first symptoms of breast cancer are usually an area of thickened tissue in the breast, or a lump in the breast or in an armpit. Other symptoms include:
- a pain in the armpits or breast that does not change with the monthly cycle
- pitting or redness of the skin of the breast, like the skin of an orange
- a rash around or on one of the nipples
- a discharge from a nipple, possibly containing blood
- a sunken or inverted nipple
- a change in the size or shape of the breast
- peeling, flaking, or scaling of the skin on the breast or nipple
Most lumps are not cancerous, but women should have them checked by a health care professional.
What Is a Breast Self-Exam?
It’s way for you to check your breasts for changes, such as lumps or thickenings. You’ll look at and feel both breasts. If you notice anything unusual, tell your doctor. In many cases, those changes aren’t cancer, but you need to see your doctor to find out.
Step 1: Begin by looking at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips.
Here’s what you should look for:
- Breasts that are their usual size, shape, and color
- Breasts that are evenly shaped without visible distortion or swelling
If you see any of the following changes, bring them to your doctor’s attention:
- Dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin
- A nipple that has changed position or an inverted nipple (pushed inward instead of sticking out)
- Redness, soreness, rash, or swelling
Step 2: Now, raise your arms and look for the same changes.
Step 3: While you’re at the mirror, look for any signs of fluid coming out of one or both nipples (this could be a watery, milky, or yellow fluid or blood)
Step 4: Next, feel your breasts while lying down, using your right hand to feel your left breast and then your left hand to feel your right breast. Use a firm, smooth touch with the first few finger pads of your hand, keeping the fingers flat and together. Use a circular motion, about the size of a quarter.
Cover the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side — from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage.
Follow a pattern to be sure that you cover the whole breast. You can begin at the nipple, moving in larger and larger circles until you reach the outer edge of the breast. You can also move your fingers up and down vertically, in rows, as if you were mowing a lawn. This up-and-down approach seems to work best for most women. Be sure to feel all the tissue from the front to the back of your breasts: for the skin and tissue just beneath, use light pressure; use medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts; use firm pressure for the deep tissue in the back. When you’ve reached the deep tissue, you should be able to feel down to your ribcage.
Step 5: Finally, feel your breasts while you are standing or sitting. Many women find that the easiest way to feel their breasts is when their skin is wet and slippery, so they like to do this step in the shower. Cover your entire breast, using the same hand movements described in step 4.
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