Breast cancer. Chances are good that you know someone, directly or indirectly, who has been affected by it. The most common cancer among Australian women, it's estimated that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed within their lifetime and, tragically, 8 women lose their life to the disease every day.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a month designed to provide an opportunity to remind the community (and ourselves) about the risks of breast cancer and how it can be detected and prevented.
Breastfeeding and Breast Cancer
As breastfeeding mums, we may be more in touch with our boobs than some of our peers but may also find ourselves confused as to how to actually check our breasts when they seem to be constantly changing in size, shape and even texture during our breastfeeding journey.
The good news? Breastfeeding for 12 months or more can provide long lasting protection from breast cancer. It is thought that the hormonal changes we experience during lactation reduces our lifetime exposure to hormones like oestrogen which can promote breast cancer cell growth. Pregnancy and breastfeeding also causes us to shed breast tissue which potentially helps remove damaged cells.
That being said, being breast aware is still super important. We spoke to Dr Ryan Harvey, Assistant Clinical Director at House Call Doctor, about how breastfeeding mums can make sure they are on top of their breast health.
How to be breast aware as a breastfeeder
Lumps, bumps and a constantly changing cup size are just part of the breastfeeding experience. While these things can be annoying, they can also make detection of irregular breast changes tricky.
"It can be more difficult when breastfeeding to recognise potentially concerning changes as the breast tissue normally changes," says Dr Harvey.
That being said however, the usual signs of breast cancer are still what a breastfeeding mum should look for. These include:
- New masses or lumps felt that do not resolve
- Changes in the nipples not resolving such as colour, asymmetry, ulcers.
- Bleeding or abnormal discharge apart from breast milk
- Changes in the skin of the breast such as discolouration, dimpling or redness.
- Increase in the size of glands under the armpit.
Knowing your breasts is key. Yes, you may experience lumpiness after a longer than normal stretch overnight or the occasional blocked duct that feels like you've somehow managed to insert a marble under your skin BUT if these don't resolve or continue to reoccur despite you doing your best to manage them, it's worth seeing your doctor.
"What is important is if you are concerned, then consult your doctor for a review and examination," says Dr Harvey. "It is important to be aware of the changes occurring in your body. If concerned the best advice it to present early for a review."
Let your doctor know that you are breastfeeding and they'll be able to assess whether the changes you are experiencing are 'normal' or something that should be investigated further.
Check yo'self monthly
As mothers, we tend to put ourselves and our health last. We will always make that appointment for our child without hesitating but when it comes to ourselves, we will put things off or forget altogether. There is nothing to be lost by getting checked but everything to be gained.
Make sure you're checking your breasts each month so that any changes are noticeable. It's quick, easy and one of the best ways to detect the early warning signs.
How to perform a breast self-examination
Look in a mirror and visually inspect your breasts with your arms in different positions
With a flat hand, gently run over your breasts and armpit in a wedge pattern, vertical strip pattern and circular pattern. Repeat lying down.
For more information on breast health and breast cancer awareness month, visit the Breast Cancer Awareness Month website