Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among South African women, and it doesn’t discriminate.
Dr Liana Roodt, specialist breast and endocrine surgeon and founder of Project Flamingo, a non-profit organisation that funds timely surgery for newly-diagnosed and existing breast cancer patients, sheds some light on breast cancer and its impact on South African women.
“Early detection is key, which is why self-examinations are so important,” explains Roodt. “By knowing your own body, you will be able to detect subtle changes.” Many women don’t feel comfortable with self-examinations, but it’s something that every woman should be doing – and it isn’t as complicated as it seems.
- 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 colour; 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).
Now, raise your arms and look for the same changes.
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, a yellow fluid or blood). This is not necessarily a sign of cancer, but should be brought to the attention of your doctor.
- Feel your breasts while lying down using your right hand to feel your left breast and 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 five-rand coin.
- 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 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.
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- 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.
“If you do feel something in your breast that shouldn’t be there, don’t panic. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have breast cancer – it could be any number of other things. However, if you find a lump, make an appointment with your doctor and have it seen to,” explains Dr Roodt.
Although self-examinations are a great preventative measure, ask your doctor to do a clinical breast examination once a year and discuss the benefits of a screening mammogram with your clinician – especially if you have a family history of breast cancer or are over the age of 40.
“It is worth dedicating a few minutes each month to self-examinations. Let us do whatever we can to educate each other and ourselves on breast health,” concludes Dr Roodt.