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Practicing Breast Self-Awareness


October—Breast Cancer Awareness Month—may be over, but something just as important, known as breast self-awareness, is a year-round practice. To help demystify the relatively new concept, CaroMont Health has asked Dr. Jamila Wade, OB-GYN at Gaston Women's Healthcare, to share some details.

“Our breasts change as we go through different stages of life. Knowing what is normal for our breasts—how they look and feel, how dense they are—is important for every woman, especially after the age of 25.” says Wade. “This is called breast self-awareness, and it can help us notice any sudden or abnormal changes, no matter how small.”

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, but if detected early, the chance she’ll beat it is a phenomenal 98%. While preventive measures in the past included a strong focus on self-exams, most experts now agree that the research surrounding these hasn’t shown a clear benefit; and mixed information on technique can lead to confusion. Breast self-awareness, however, is a more holistic—and effective—preventive measure in the early stages of breast cancer detection.

In Dr. Wade’s words, “the more you know about your own breasts, the better.”

Identifying Changes

“The first key to breast self-awareness is becoming familiar with your own body and knowing what is normal for your breasts.” says Wade. “Watch and feel for sudden or significant changes, and see your doctor if you notice anything unusual.”

For instance:

  • Lumps, hard knots or thickening inside the breast or underarm area
  • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast
  • Change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
  • Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast
  • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly
  • New pain in one spot that doesn't go away

Knowing Your Risk

The second key to breast self-awareness, Wade explains, is to know you risk. “Talk to both sides of your family and learn about your family health history. If you know people in your family had breast cancer at an early age, for example, it’s a good idea to seek genetic counseling.” Still, approximately three-fourths of breast cancer diagnoses are women with no family history of breast cancer—so regular screening is important, too.

Making Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Beyond physical exams and family history, the third key to breast self-awareness is understanding which lifestyle choices can help reduce your risk of breast cancer—and which choices could increase it:

  • Maintain a healthy weight and avoid drastic fluctuations
  • Stay active; establish an exercise routine that works for you
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Avoid smoking cigarettes
  • Limit menopausal hormone use
  • Breastfeed (if possible)

Get Screened

“Regular exams and mammograms are essential to early detection. Talk to your doctor about how often you should be screened, and which tests are right for you. Most doctors will recommend having a clinical breast exam at least every three years starting at age 20, and every year starting at age 40.” Dr. Wade reminds. “The combination of increased breast self-awareness and regular preventive care can help women everywhere live longer, healthier lives—whether or not they’re ever diagnosed with breast cancer.”