Even though this isn't breast cancer awareness month, I wanted to talk about what you should look for to be aware of your risk for developing breast cancer. Early detection gives you the best chance for remission. I hesitate to use the word "cure" because I don't believe we are ever really cured of cancer once we have faced a diagnosis. Everyone has abnormal/cancer cells in their body but it's when they multiply enough to be detected that we are afforded a diagnosis. Our hope is that the treatment and subsequent lifestyle changes keep the cancer from getting another chance.
So what should you look for? What are the signs that should get your attention and make you want to follow up with the doctor? Here are some signs to look for:
- A lump in the breast, armpit or chest wall - This is a pretty obvious one but one that many people might miss. Monthly self examination will help to find a lump but only if it is palpable. If it's deep within the breast tissue, as mine was, you may not be able to feel it.
- Pain in the breast or the feeling of an electric charge through the breast - This pain is possibly caused by the presence of cancer in the breast. If the pain is felt in the breast and elsewhere in the body and is cancer, it could have spread. Not all breast pain is from cancer so don't panic if you do feel pain. It could be from another, possibly serious cause so don't ignore it. It could also be due to hormonal changes.
- Change in the size or shape of the breast - If you notice a change in the size, texture, color, nipple appearance or shape of the breast see a doctor.
- The appearance of redness, itching or a rash - Many women ignore these symptoms or consult a dermatologist when it appears to be a skin condition. It could actually be a sign of inflammatory breast disease which is a very serious form of breast cancer. If you see a rash and topical ointments treat it successfully it may not be something to worry about but it wouldn't hurt to consult a breast specialist nonetheless.
- Discharge from the nipple - If you aren't lactating and you have a discharge from the nipple, it should be investigated. Any discharge from the nipple that isn't breast milk could be problematic.
- Changes in skin texture and appearance - If the skin of the breast begins to take on the appearance of an orange peel or there is puckering of or around the nipple, it's time to speak to the doctor.
- Underarm swelling - If you notice swelling under the arm, it could be cancer. It's possible to have swelling under the arm or somewhere on the chest wall that needs attention.
- Inversion of the nipple - if the nipple becomes inverted where it wasn't before, see a doctor as this is a symptom of breast cancer. If you always had inverted nipples and the appearance has otherwise changes, it would be prudent to have it checked out.
- Unusual nipple sensitivity - because a lot of breast tumors originate behind or near the nipple, it can cause the nipple to become more sensitive, especially during sex. If that occurs, see the doctor.
- A persistent cough, shortness of breath or sore throat - these symptoms are often mistaken for something less sinister such as a cold or allergies but can also be a sign of secondary breast cancer. Such an occurrence often happens to people who are diagnosed as terminal so do not wait to see a doctor if you have these persistent symptoms.
If you notice any of these symptoms, don't panic. Ask the doctor to examine and test you for breast cancer. If you feel that the doctor is being dismissive, find another doctor. Do not be marginalized. You know your body better than anyone and you know if something isn't right. Breast cancer, when caught in time, does not have to be a death sentence. I am living proof of that so far. This coming January I will be cancer free for ten years and I fully expect to have many more cancer free years until I die of old age.