Practicing Breast Self-Awareness

Early detection of breast cancer is the single-most effective way to beat the disease. That is why it is essential for women to conduct their own breast exams to discover any potential anomalies early on.

While doctors stress the importance of self-examination, many women still show up for routine wellness visits admitting they don't do examinations because they simply don't know how. Perhaps because the practice was given the formal name "breast self-exam." Today, however, doctors tell women to have "breast self-awareness." That means women don't have to follow a set protocol regarding checking for breast changes, and simply being aware of how the breasts look and feel is key.

Why the change in the formalities? Doctors have determined that most women notice a lump in their breasts while doing routine activities, such as bathing or dressing. They also figured out that a formal method of examining the breasts was not necessary. Lumps can be found simply by touching the breasts in any pattern, as long as the entire breast is checked.

To demystify the process even further, follow these guidelines.

* Breasts are best checked for changes directly after a menstrual period. At this time the breast tissue will be softer and less tender due to diminishing hormone levels.

* Look at the breasts every day and notice their appearance and shape. Recognizing subtle differences can help alert a doctor if something is amiss.

* Be conscious of these changes:

- changes in breast size, shape, skin texture, or color

- dimpling or puckering of the breast

- discharge from the nipples

- scaliness of the skin

- nipple pulling to one side

- lump or mass in the breast

- enlarged lymph node under the arm

Any changes or questions about breast condition should be promptly brought up with a doctor.

* Women should know their risk for breast cancer. While there isn't a definitive genetic correlation, the high rate of breast cancer in one family may mean a particular woman is more at risk.

* Get routine screenings at a doctor's office. Women over the age of 40 should get a mammogram every year.

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