Aside from skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Being able to identify changes in your breasts and signs of the disease is key to prevention and early diagnosis.
Almost all official guidelines recommend breast self-awareness, or knowing what your breasts typically feel like. Having this baseline makes it easier to identify changes that could be signs of breast cancer.
Guidelines vary on the value of having regular breast exams done by your healthcare provider, so talk to your doctor to make an informed decision together.
The most common symptom is a new or changing lump, either in the breast or closer to the underarm.
Notice if you have a lump that’s getting bigger, harder or stuck in place. Lumps can present with and without pain and can vary in size.
While 90 percent of lumps found in women between their 20s and early 50s are benign, it’s important to rule out the chance of breast cancer if you discover anything abnormal.
Abnormal skin changes are also important to note. These include itchiness, irritation, redness, scaling, swelling on part of the breast, pain or dimpling.
Be aware of nipple skin changes that occur outside of pregnancy or menopause, as well – such as discharge, inversion, pain, crusting or color change.
If you do feel or see anything abnormal, or are worried about sudden breast changes, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor can evaluate changes and suggest a next step, which is typically imaging in the form of a mammogram and a breast ultrasound.
Who is at greater risk for breast cancer?
While all women should be self-aware, there are certain groups at a higher risk for breast cancer than others.
• Personal or family history of breast cancer. If you have a first-degree relative (mother or sister) under age 50 when they were diagnosed, then you need early screening. Doctors will recommend early screenings starting at 30 for individuals who have a hereditary risk of the disease, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations.
• Age. Early menstruation, becoming pregnant at an older age, late menopause, obesity and a history of radiation treatment on your chest are associated with a higher risk.
However, many women who develop breast cancer might not have any risk factors, so don’t ignore any changes in breast health.
• Dense breasts. Women with dense breasts might not catch any changes as early as other women. If you have dense breasts, your doctor might recommend additional screening.
I recommend yearly screening mammography beginning at age 40. Women should continue screening mammography as long as their overall health is good and they have a life expectancy of 10 years or longer.
Women with a high lifetime risk of breast cancer are encouraged to get mammograms and MRIs beginning at age 30, or an individualized schedule based on family history and guidance from their doctor.
Dr. William Burak is a breast surgeon who sees patients at Memorial Health in Okatie. MemorialHealthDoctors.com.