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November 26, 2021
| Womens Advocacy, Wellbeing

Why It’s Important to be Breast Aware

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – have you checked your boobs yet? 

Breast cancer awareness is more important than ever in 2021, as the impact of COVID-19 on early diagnosis has been huge. There were 20,000 fewer breast screening procedures performed in 2020, raising fears that thousands of breast cancer diagnoses may have been missed as a result. You can read more about the COVID impacts on breast cancer in this article

Breast Cancer Trials Medical Advisor, Dr Nicholas Zdenkowski has urged women not to put off seeing their doctor if they notice any changes to their breasts. 

“Breast cancer does not wait until the end of a pandemic,” he said. “The longer a cancer is left undiagnosed, the more likely it is to grow and travel elsewhere in the body such as to the lymph nodes under the arm, or worse, to other parts of the body.”

It’s tempting to see breast cancer as an older women’s issue but, while the majority of breast cancer cases occur in women over the age of 50, close to 1,000 women under the age of 40 are expected to be diagnosed with the disease in 2021. 

The risk of a woman being diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime is 1 in 7, however the five-year survival rates for women have improved from 76% to 91% since the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) started funding in 1994.

Here’s our handy guide to everything you need to know about reducing your breast cancer risk and ensuring every woman in your circle is informed about their bodies and supported.

How to check your breasts

The best way to protect yourself from breast cancer is to become familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts, as it means you’ll be more likely to notice if there are any changes. 

That means getting comfortable with looking at and feeling your breasts. Do it when you’re in the bath or shower, while using body lotion and as you’re getting dressed. 

Perform regular self-examinations by looking at the shape and appearance of your breasts and nipples in the mirror, first with your hands by your sides, then with your arms raised above your head. Feel all of your breasts and nipples - from your collarbone to below the bra-line, and under your armpit - looking for anything that isn’t normal for you. 

If you notice something that seems unusual, make an appointment to see your doctor. 

Signs of breast cancer 

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, it’s important to keep an eye out for these signs:

>> A lump or thickening in the breast, especially if it is only in one breast

>> Changes to the shape or size of the breast

>> Changes to the shape of the nipple, such as crusting, sores or ulcers, redness or inversion (a nipple that turns in when it used to point out)

>> Changes to the skin of the breast, such as dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel), a rash, scaly appearance, unusual redness or other colour changes

>> Fluid leaking or discharge from the nipple that occurs without squeezing

>> Persistent, unusual pain that doesn’t go away

>> Swelling or discomfort in the armpit

If you find any of them, make an appointment to see your doctor. 

The importance of mammograms

A mammogram is a low dose x-ray picture of the breast, which allows doctors to identify abnormalities or changes. Women aged 50-74 years are recommended to have a free screening mammogram every two years in Australia, through BreastScreen Australia.

Women aged 40-49 years are also eligible to receive free mammograms. Your doctor is the best person to speak to about the potential benefits and risks of a screening mammogram if you are in this age group.

Dr Nicholas Zdenkowski explains: “The idea of screening mammography and self-awareness of breast change is that cancer or pre-cancer is found at its earliest stage when there is the best chance of cure with minimal treatment.”

4 ways to reduce your breast cancer risk 

While there are factors that women have no control over - such as family history, having a fault (or mutation) in your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, or breast density – there are lifestyle steps you can take to minimise your breast cancer risk. 

>> Limit your alcohol consumption - the risk of breast cancer rises with the number of drinks you regularly consume

>> Keeping to a healthy weight range reduces the risk of breast cancer

>> Stay active - women of all ages who regularly exercise have a decreased risk of breast cancer 

>> Quit smoking - evidence suggests an association between smoking and breast cancer risk

The power of sharing

It’s important to break down taboos around discussing breast health with your loved ones and friends. 

As our founder Shivani Gopal notes: "We need to start talking. Let’s talk more about what is and what isn’t normal.

"The average woman largely doesn’t understand how her own body functions and what is and what isn’t ‘normal’. There’s some unspoken social order we seem to live under where it’s deemed not okay to openly talk about our ‘female’ health issues and questions.”

Here are Shivani’s top women’s health tips:

>> If you are in pain or experiencing something health-wise that doesn’t feel right - ask for help and get it checked. If you need to get a second, third or even fourth opinion, do it.

>> Talk about your health experiences as a woman - your journey with menstruating, aches and pains, conceiving, pregnancy - all of it! Let’s make it what it is - a normal conversation.

>> Educate yourself if you don’t feel you know enough about your own body and how it’s functioning. Google it, read up on it, look at it, talk about it, ask the professionals!

>> Know that you’re not alone, and this isn’t a shameful or embarrassing thing to discuss. It’s your health.

Read more about women's health on our Women’s Health 101 article 

You can also help raise breast cancer awareness and survival rates by donating to NBCF during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

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