Studies show that regular breast self-exams are not the best way to detect breast cancer early.
What does work? Being aware of how your breasts look and feel and seeing a doctor as soon as you notice changes or abnormalities.
“The vast majority of breast cancers are found during daily activities like showering, applying deodorant or even scratching,” says Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of the Cancer Prevention Center.
Bevers advises women to see a doctor if they have one or more symptoms of breast cancer, no matter how mild they may seem.
“You don’t need to wait for any particular size or severity of symptoms to get checked out,” she says. "The earlier that breast cancer is detected, the better our chances of treating it successfully."
And you shouldn’t ignore symptoms just because you breasts don't hurt. “Pain is rarely a symptom of breast cancer,” she says.
The vast majority of breast cancers are found during daily activities like showering, applying deodorant or even scratching.
Breast cancer symptoms
Most breast changes are due to hormonal cycles or conditions that are less worrying than breast cancer. However, if you experience any of the following breast cancer symptoms, even if they seem mild, see your doctor.
- A lump in the breast or armpit is the most common symptom of breast cancer. Bevers says her patients often describe this as a ball or a nodule. Lumps may feel soft and rubbery or hard. Unless you have small breasts or the lump is very large, you probably won’t be able to see it.
- Skin redness
- Dimpling or puckering on the breast
- Scaliness on nipple (sometimes extending to the areola)
- Discharge from the nipple
- Nipple changes, including the nipple turning inward, pulling to one side or changing direction
- Ulcer on the breast or nipple (sometimes extending to the areola)
- Thickening of the skin, resulting in an orange-peel texture
Though rare, men can also get breast cancer. The most common symptoms of male breast cancer are a lump, discharge or dimpling.
Reduce your risk of breast cancer with early detection and prevention
When it comes to cancer, early detection is important, but so is reducing your risk. There are several healthy lifestyle choices you can make to reduce your risk of breast cancer.
Stay lean after menopause. Keep a healthy weight and a low amount of body fat. Eating a healthy diet can help.
Get active and sit less. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. Do strength-training exercises at least two days a week.
Avoid alcohol. If you drink, limit yourself to one drink per day if you are a woman, and two drinks per day if you are a man.
Choose to breastfeed. Try to breastfeed exclusively for six months after giving birth, and continue even when other foods are introduced.
Manage hormones naturally. If you are going through menopause and trying to control the symptoms, try non-hormonal methods before turning to hormone replacement therapy.
In addition to making healthy lifestyle choices, get regular breast cancer screening exams. Screening exams can detect cancer early, when it's easiest to treat.
Women age 25 to 39 should consider a clinical breast exam every one to three years. Women 40 and older should get an annual breast exam and a screening mammogram.