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October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to increase awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and cure. 

What is Breast Cancer?

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, breast cancer is a disease that attacks the tissue in one or both of your breasts. Breast cancer develops when cells stop working correctly, creating abnormal cells that grow uncontrollably. These cancer cells can form tumors, and if left untreated, they can spread to other parts of your body.

While it’s possible for anyone to be diagnosed with breast cancer, the disease most commonly affects cisgender (cis) women.

How common is breast cancer?

After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in cis women: about 1 in 8 cisgender women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. It’s also the second deadliest type of cancer for cis women. Over 240,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the U.S. and 40,000 people die from the disease annually

Am I at risk for breast cancer?

Anyone can get breast cancer, but there are some things that can increase your risk, including

  • being a cisgender woman
  • inherited mutations to genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) that are related to breast cancer
  • being more than 50 years old
  • a blood relative who has had breast or ovarian cancer

Having one or more risk factors does not mean you’ll definitely get breast cancer. Likewise, some people will get breast cancer without having any of these risks.

Many risk factors are out of your control, but there are some things you can do to help lower your chances of getting the disease, or detecting it early enough to treat. Talk with your doctor or nurse about breast cancer screenings and what you can do to stay healthy. 

Adults of all ages are encouraged to perform breast self-exams at least once a month. Johns Hopkins Medical center states,

“Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by those who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important.”

While mammograms can help you to detect cancer before you can feel a lump, breast self-exams help you to be familiar with how your breasts look and feel so you can alert your health care professional if there are any changes.

The National Breast Cancer Foundations, INC. breaks down how a breast self-exam should be performed:

In the Shower

With the pads/flats of your 3 middle fingers, check the entire breast and armpit area pressing down with light, medium, and firm pressure. Check both breasts each month feeling for any lump, thickening, hardened knot, or any other breast changes.

In Front of a Mirror

Visually inspect your breasts with your arms at your sides. Next, raise your arms high overhead.

Look for any changes in the contour, any swelling, or dimpling of the skin, or changes in the nipples. Next, rest your palms on your hips and press firmly to flex your chest muscles. Left and right breasts will not exactly match—few women’s breasts do, so look for any dimpling, puckering, or changes, particularly on one side.

Lying Down

When lying down, the breast tissue spreads out evenly along the chest wall. Place a pillow under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand, move the pads of your fingers around your right breast gently covering the entire breast area and armpit.

Use light, medium, and firm pressure. Squeeze the nipple; check for discharge and lumps. Repeat these steps for your left breast.

Read more on the symptoms and signs in our next Breast Cancer Awareness blog.

Additional Resources:

Planned Parenthood Breast Cancer Screenings

National Breast Cancer Foundation, INC.

American Cancer Society


Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Tags: breast_cancer, self breast exam