We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful women's health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: what you need to know about breast cancer.
Q: I just realized that I’m in my early 20s but still don’t know how to do breast self-exams . I should probably be doing them, because my grandmother died of it and breast cancer is genetic, right? How do I know if I have a lump or if it’s just my breast being not perfectly smooth? And how often should I check, do I have to do it every day or what? What do I do if I find what I think is a lump? Gah — I have so many questions!
A: Breasts are a very special part of the human body. They nourish the next generation, and are a critical part of sex for many people. However, they can also get sick, just like the rest of our body parts. And that usually takes the form of breast cancer. Breast cancer is a very serious and potentially deadly disease. In fact, it’s the second most common type of cancer in humans with breasts living in the United States (after skin cancer).
Luckily, there are some simple things you can do to catch breast cancer early and greatly raise your chances for survival. But first, let's make sure we have the basics covered.
What Is Breast Cancer, Exactly?
Cancer is when your body’s cells, which have been growing regularly their entire tiny lives, start growing out of control. These wild, unruly cells are called abnormal because they don’t stop growing and at times they invade other cells, which is not only rude but is also dangerous. In the case of breast cancer, the cells that are out of control are in the breast’s milk ducts or glands. The abnormal cells usually start as a little tumor and can stay where they started or break free and travel to other parts of the body, which is called metastasizing.
What Puts You At A Greater Risk For Breast Cancer?
Unfortunately, scientists don’t really know why cells decide to throw an unsanctioned party in your breasts. However, there are some risk factors that they have discovered contribute to your chances for getting this disease. Remember that having these doesn’t mean you will develop breast cancer, or alternately that not having them will protect you (in fact, 75 percent of those who get the disease don’t have any risk factors that they know of).
That said, know that if you were born with female reproductive organs, you’re significantly more at risk. Currently, approximately one in eight Americans with female reproductive organs will develop invasive breast cancer, and nearly 40,000 will die of it. That’s compared to one in 1,000 for those born with male reproductive organs who will get breast cancer.
The older you get, the more likely you are to develop breast cancer. Around two-thirds of people with the disease are over the age of 50. The vast majority of the remaining one-third are over the age of 39.
Finally, if you have a first-degree relative (so a parent, sibling, or child) who has gotten breast cancer, you’re twice as likely to get it yourself. Some gene mutations (of the BRAC1 and BRAC2 genes) can cause breast cancer. About one in every 200 humans with breasts has this gene, and these people have a 56 and 85 percent risk of getting breast cancer in their lives.
Can I Prevent It?
The best way to prevent negative outcomes from breast cancer (in other words, serious illness or death) is to catch it early, when it’s easy to treat. For instance, if you catch a cancerous tumor before it spreads, in nine out of ten cases you’re giving yourself at least five more years of life. Your doctor will help you do this through routine mammograms, but you should check yourself too!
Breast self-exams are a great way for you to get to know your breasts. If you become the expert on your own body, you will be able to notice any changes, which you can then report to your doctor to get checked out. By examining yourself routinely (it’s recommended to do so at least once a month), you could literally be saving your own life. By one account, 40 percent of instances of breast cancer are brought to the attention of doctors by the women themselves.
How Do I Examine My Breasts?
There are a few options for how to give yourself a breast self-exam. For all of these, it’s best to do it a few days after you end your period, when your breasts aren’t as tender or lumpy. (Sidenote: If you have breast implants, it can be difficult to feel differences in your breasts. If this is you, ask your doctor to show you how to feel for the edge of your implant, so you can tell the difference between that edge and any changes in your breasts.)
The Mirror Method
If you like checking yourself out, this is a great option for you. The first step of this method is to find a mirror that fits your whole torso. You look great! OK, now put your arms down against your sides and check out your breasts. Then, raise your arms high above your head. Next, put your palms on your hips and push down, so that you’re flexing your chest muscles. Finally, bend forward and check your breasts from the front view. For all of these steps, pay special attention to any differences between your two breasts, as well as any changes from the last time you did your exam.
The Lying Down Method
If you’re less of a looker and more of a lounger, you can do your self-exam in bed. Lying down is great because your breast tissue spreads out evenly across your body. For this method, you’ll need a pillow. Pick a side to start with, and put your pillow under that shoulder, and put that arm behind your head. Using your opposite hand, push gently on the breast of the side you’ve chosen, moving across your entire breast and armpit. It’s easy to start at the nipple and go out in concentric circles, but really, you can use any design you want as long as you cover the whole area. Also squeeze your nipple to make sure there's no abnormal discharge. Then do the same for the other side. Make sure to use light, medium, and firm pressure when you do this so that you really feel the whole three-dimensional space of your breast.
The Shower Method
For those of us who like long showers or are super utilitarian, you can do your breast exam in the shower! Some people have found that it’s easier to feel lumps when their skin is wet. For this method, first get in the shower (thanks Captain Obvious) and soap up. Raise one arm above your head and use the other arm to check the breast attached to the raised arms. Like in the lying down method, you’ll want to check out the entire surface of your breast and armpit, in whatever design suits your fancy, you unique snowflake you.
What Am I Looking For?
For all of these breast self-exam options, you’re looking for lumps or changes to your breasts. Changes in your nipples can include tenderness; differences in the way they look, like depression (no not sadness, if they are pushed in), and scaly, red, or rashy skin; or if you see any discharge. Changes in your breasts can include lumps; changes in size and shape; any dimples or puckers in your breast skin; pain in any one part of your breast; red, scaly, itchy, or warm skin; or a hard lump or knot in the breast or in your armpit.
When Should I Panic?
Breast cancer (or any cancer really) is definitely really scary, and so any indication that you have it can send you into a full blown freak-out. But it’s important to remember that these are all potential indications of breast cancer, not 100 percent sure signs that you have it. There are a number of different reasons why these symptoms can be happening — for example, hormonal birth control can make your breasts bigger, and your breasts can get sunburned just like the rest of your skin, causing redness.
In fact, most problems you can have in your breasts aren’t caused by breast cancer. If you notice a change in one breast, check the other one. If the same lump is in the same area in the other breast, both breasts are probably fine. And even if you do find a lump, it’s not necessarily cancer. Eight out of every ten lumps found in breasts aren’t cancerous.
Overall, if you do find any change, don’t immediately panic. Go to your doctor to get further tests. She will tell you when to freak out — that’s her job.
The Bottom Line
The truth is, breast cancer is scary. There’s no way around it. But the good news is that you now have the tools you need to catch it early, when it’s waaaay less scary. Self-exams are easy to perform on yourself, and are just as easy to teach someone else. Have a friend (or lover) help you out! And once you do, at yourself on the back (or breast) — you’re supporting your health!