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How a breast cancer check can save your life

It’s so important to keep on top of regular breast checks

A woman chats to her female doctor
A woman chats to her female doctor

It’s the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australian women, and with more than 20,000 people (1 in 7) diagnosed with the disease annually, chances are you know someone with breast cancer.

Although breast cancer is often thought of as a disease that only affects women, men can get breast cancer too.

In Australia, about one in 500 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.

Early detection is key to increasing your chances of beating this form of cancer, so it’s never been more important to keep on top of regular breast cancer checks and seek professional advice if you notice any changes.

What’s a breast cancer check and who does it?

A mammogram (an x-ray of your breasts completed by a radiographer) is the recommended screening tool for detecting breast cancer early. The government’s program, BreastScreen Australia, invites women aged 50 to 74 to undergo a free mammogram every two years.

Women aged 40 to 49 and those over 74 years can also be screened for free, but they’re not sent invitation letters. Women aged over 50 who have a higher risk of developing breast cancer are encouraged to get a mammogram every six months.

As well as regular mammograms, you should also get familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts and do regular checks; if you find any changes, report back to your GP.

But I’m only young, do I still need a breast check?

Although your chances of developing cancer are low when you’re young, keep in mind that 7% of women diagnosed with breast cancer worldwide are under 40.

If you have a family history of breast cancer, your doctor may begin conducting breast examinations in your teenage years. Detecting cancer early can allow the treatment to begin sooner and increase your chances of surviving.

Credit: nib health insurance

How to do a breast check at home

Conducting regular breast self-exams at home will allow you to spot any changes and increase your chances of discovering the disease as early as possible. Follow these four steps when doing a check:

  1. 1

    Examine your breasts in front of a mirror with your hands on your hips. Note the size, shape and colour of your breasts and look for any changes including visible distortion, swelling, dimpling or bulging of the skin or a nipple that has changed position or is inverted. Also look for any fluid coming from your nipples, such as blood or watery fluid.

  2. 2

    Raise your arms and check again for the same indicators mentioned above.

  3. 3

    Lie down to feel for any changes. Using a firm touch, feel your breasts for any lumps from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen. Move your hands across your entire breast, covering small areas at a time using a circular motion.

  4. 4

    Finally, feel your breasts while standing or sitting. A good place to do this is in the shower with some soap.

If you notice any changes, arrange to see your doctor as soon as possible.

Related: How to perform a self-examination for breast cancer

What do I do if I feel a lump?

If you feel a lump, don’t panic. Many women have non-cancerous lumps in their breasts caused by normal hormonal changes.

But, to be on the safe side make an appointment with your doctor, especially if the changes in your breast last more than one menstrual cycle or if the lump is accompanied by pain, swelling, redness or fluid discharge.

How can I reduce my risk of breast cancer?

There is no definite way to prevent breast cancer, but you can make some lifestyle choices to reduce your risk. Maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, exercising, limiting your alcohol intake and breastfeeding can help reduce your breast cancer risk.

If you have a family history of breast cancer, you could chat to your doctor about measures to reduce your risk, such as genetic testing, taking certain medicines and a preventative (prophylactic) mastectomy.

‘I was diagnosed with breast cancer’

With two kids under three at the time, Sarah Baxter’s sudden breast cancer diagnosis came with a barrage of life-changing decisions that affected her whole family.

Sarah was able to take on the challenge of a breast cancer diagnosis with the support of her McGrath Foundation Breast Care Nurse, Rikki.

Sarah Baxter with her McGrath Foundation Breast Care Nurse Rikki

Treatment for Sarah’s type of cancer would normally involve a lumpectomy, where only a portion of the breast is removed. But due to family history – both her mum and aunt had breast cancer twice – Sarah decided to get a double mastectomy.

“I’d only just stopped breastfeeding and was still emotionally attached to my breasts. I had a horrendous time making that decision. I was a mess.”

Sarah says the support she received from Rikki was invaluable. Rikki was there for her from her very first appointment with the breast surgeon.

“Rikki knew all the medical and clinical implications and could explain it in a way that made sense. She could answer all my questions.”

Her mastectomy turned out to be the right choice of treatment. It revealed more aggressive cancer cells, which may not have been found if Sarah had chosen the lumpectomy option.

“I would have been so lost and confused without Rikki. She gave me confidence in my decisions. I’m so incredibly grateful she was there to support me.”

Ready to book in a mammogram?

For more information about mammograms or to book an appointment, visit BreastScreen Australia or call 13 20 50.

Has it been a while since your last check-up?

We can help. Our Find a Provider service allows you to search for health professionals in your local area.

If you’re heading to your GP for a check-up, it could be a good opportunity to find out what other examinations you might be due for.