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Breast cancer detection

How do I know if I have breast cancer?

Breast cancer responds to treatment best when it is detected early. For this reason you should be breast aware and get mammograms as recommended by your doctor.

Being breast aware

Cancer Research UK recommends women are breast aware. This simply means knowing how your breasts normally look and feel at different times of the month.

The organisation says you don’t have to examine your breasts every day or even every week. You just need to know how your breasts normally feel and how they change with your periods, if you still have them. This will help you spot a change that isn’t normal, such as any new masses or lumps. Premenstrual changes can cause temporary thickening that disappears after the period, so it is best to check your breasts three to five days after your period ends. If you notice something about your breasts that makes you anxious or you have questions about how to examine your breasts, talk to your doctor.

To examine your breasts you can start by viewing your breasts in a mirror - look for dimpling or changes in shape or symmetry. The rest of a breast examination is easiest to do in the shower, using soap to smooth your skin. Using light pressure, check for lumps near the surface. Use firm pressure to explore deeper tissues. Squeeze each nipple gently: if there is any discharge - especially if it is bloody – seek medical advice.

Any time you find a new or unusual lump in your breast, ask your doctor to check it to make sure it is not cancerous or precancerous. Most lumps are benign and do not signal cancer. The best test for distinguishing a cyst from a solid tumour is an ultrasound, a test that your doctor can refer you for. A needle biopsy may also be done if your doctor refers you to a breast specialist. 

A mammogram - an X-ray of the breast - is offered to all women in the UK between 50 and 70 years old, once every three years by the NHS. The NHS plans to extend this to all 47 – 73 year olds by 2016.

Several tests can help distinguish a benign lump from a malignant tumour. Because malignant and benign lumps tend to have different physical features, imaging tests such as mammography and ultrasound can often rule out cancer. The only way to confirm cancer is to perform a needle aspiration or a biopsy and to test the tissue sample for cancer cells.

In the event of malignancy, you and your doctor need to know how advanced the cancer is. Various tests are used to check for the presence and likely sites of spread, or metastasis. Cancer cells can be analysed for the presence or absence of hormone receptors, to find out if the cancer is likely to respond well to hormone therapy. Other tests can help predict the likelihood of metastasis and the potential for recurrence after treatment.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on July 03, 2014

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