Since 1985, October has served as Breast Cancer Awareness (BCA) Month — a period devoted to educating the public on the disease that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is the second most common form of cancer in women, regardless of race or ethnicity. Men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer (albeit at a much lower rate), and The AEDITION is devoting much of its coverage this month to BCA, from expert guides to mastectomies and reconstructive breast surgery to powerful patient perspectives and roundups of products that give back.
Because breast cancer awareness has become so mainstream in recent years with everyone from celebrities to the NFL dedicating time and resources to supporting the cause, men and women alike are increasingly aware of the warning signs. Women especially are encouraged to regularly conduct their own self-breast exams and may even ask their partners to let them know if they notice any changes, too.
But what happens if/when you find a lump? Because breast cancer has such a high profile and statistics like one in eight women will be diagnosed in their lifetime are well known, people are often fearful to seek medical advice after noticing a change in their breast tissue because they assume the worst.
While it is absolutely essential to get any changes checked out by a medical professional, it is also important to remember that 80 to 85 percent of lumps found in women under the age 40 are benign and caused by fibrocystic changes, cysts, fibroadenomas, or fat necrosis to name a few.
With this in mind, it is important to understand the function and importance of breast exams. We’ve already shared the resilient stories of mastectomy patients (HERE) and those who have undergone breast reconstruction procedures (HERE), and in this article, The AEDITION speaks to women who found a lump and decided to do something about it.
For women with no family history of breast cancer, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises people in their twenties and thirties have a breast examination carried out by a healthcare provider every one or three years. The American Cancer Society, meanwhile, recommends annual mammograms for women between the ages of 40 and 55. Women over 55 can switch to mammograms every two years or continue with yearly screenings. But that doesn’t mean you should just sit around for your next trip to the gynecologist.
Women are encouraged to conduct a self-examination about once a month. Because benign lumps are known to appear over the course of a woman’s menstrual cycle, it is best to perform the exam at the same time every month — ideally a few days after your period ends.
During the exam, it is important to be on the lookout for any changes in the appearance of both the exterior breast (skin, areola, and nipple) and the interior tissue. Things to feel and look for include:
- A visible change in the shape or size of the breast or nipple
- A change in how the breast skin looks or feels (think: dimpling or puckering)
- Soreness, redness, or rashes on the breast or underarm area
- Any areas that are visibly different compared to the rest of your breast tissue
- A lump (can be a small as the size of a pea) that persists in the breast or underarm area
If you notice any of these symptoms or something just doesn’t feel like your version of ‘normal,’ it is time to consult a medical professional for a more thorough check. Chances are, it is simple to treat. But if it is breast cancer, early detection is key.
There are no two ways about it: finding a lump in your breast or noticing some other change to the chest can be alarming. But that is not an excuse for inaction. Here, The AEDITION speaks to three women who lived through a breast cancer scare about their experiences and why they encourage everyone to consult a doctor as soon as they notice something isn’t quite right.
Anna, 29, Los Angeles
The AEDITION: What caused you to become concerned about your breasts?
Anna: I was at college and aware that I needed to check myself every so often. I didn’t check as often as I now know I should, but one day I was in the bathroom and found a lump. It was probably around the size of an olive. I panicked and decided I wouldn’t tell anyone. My theory was that if I ignored it, it would go away. I would prove to myself that it wasn’t anything serious. But after a while, it was still there. A family friend had been diagnosed with cancer recently, so I guess it was on my mind. I made an appointment to see my doctor. At that point, I was convinced the only thing it could be was cancer.
The AEDITION: What happened during your doctor’s appointment?
Anna: I explained to the physician that I found this lump and that I thought I might have breast cancer. I was so anxious, but the doctor took the time to listen to me while I gave my garbled version of events. She then checked the lump herself, which was uncomfortable, but it didn’t take too long. She then asked me whether I had any pain, whether it changed during my cycle, and whether or not I’d noticed any other symptoms. I was referred for an ultrasound — my doctor explained it would give her a clearer idea of what was going on — but she also took some time to reassure me that it could very easily be something simple to treat and not cancer at all.
The AEDITION: What did the next steps look like for you?
Anna: First of all, I told a friend, which was probably the best thing I did throughout the process. She was able to reassure me and she also came with me to my other appointments. I had the ultrasound quite soon after the first appointment. Again, it was uncomfortable in that I’m not keen on being naked in front of random people, but, other than that, it wasn’t painful or anything. About a week after that I went back to the primary care doctor, who explained to me that it was a cyst. Because it was filled with liquid and not solid, I didn’t even need to have a biopsy. She told me to keep an eye on it, and if it became painful, they could offer me some other treatment options. That was about four years ago now, and I haven’t had any problems since. I do check my breasts regularly though, and I’m such an advocate for people getting any concerns checked out quickly.
The AEDITION: What advice do you have for someone who finds themselves in a similar situation?
Anna: I would say do the brave, grown-up thing and get it checked. Don’t bury your head in the sand because, if it is cancer, that’s literally the worst thing you could do. I think the awareness we have of breast cancer is amazing now, but it can make finding an issue so scary because the first thing that comes to mind is cancer. I also think people should share their concerns. Chances are a friend has been through a very similar thing — especially by the time you reach your late twenties. I know so many people who have been through the same panic. It’s best to share with both friends and doctors.
Stephanie, 58, Texas
The AEDITION: What led you to believe you might have breast cancer?
Stephanie: I was checking my breast, which I do regularly now that I’m older. I felt something a bit different on my right side — almost in my underarm area. I had a sinking feeling when I first felt it and managed to calm myself down enough to have a Google, which, in hindsight, was not my best idea. I was pretty sure what I found could be a sign of breast cancer, and, honestly, I was scared. It took me a few days to gather together the courage to get a consult, but I didn’t want to leave it because I know how important it can be to get a diagnosis as soon as possible.
The AEDITION: What pushed you to visit a doctor?
Stephanie: I think breast cancer awareness has reached this amazing level where most of us know to check ourselves and not to mess around with it if we do find something a bit suspicious. I gave myself a couple of days to accept the potential reality of the situation and went to see my doctor. I explained the situation, and he took a look. Fortunately, the office also has an ultrasound room and I was able to sit and wait for it to come available there and then. I was told I had a liquid-filled cyst, and I was booked in for a biopsy. A couple of days after the biopsy, I received a call from my doctor, who explained what it was. He told me that I had an oil cyst, which can happen when fat is damaged. It wasn’t cancer at all. He praised me for being so reactive when I found it and told me to go and get on with my life — but to keep on checking in the future.
The AEDITION: Did you know about fat necrosis when you initially felt the scar tissue in your breast?
Stephanie: I honestly thought I was well informed about all things breasts, but apparently I was not. I hadn’t ever heard of it. I think it’s really important that, as much as we now all learn about checking for cancer, we also get told about other, far less life-altering issues we could develop in that area. I think it can be reassuring — especially for younger people — to know there are other conditions out there. Finding out quickly can save a lot of stress, but it is also important if it is cancer.
Jennifer, 34, Miami
The AEDITION: Could you give us an idea of the symptoms that led to your concern?
Jennifer: It happened not long before I stopped breastfeeding my daughter, so I was kind of acutely aware of what was going on with my breasts. One of them started to get a little painful and, over time, got somewhat swollen and warm. My main concern was getting it seen quickly. Not only was I in pain, but I was scared that if I left it, I could jeopardize my future with my daughter.
The AEDITION: What was your experience like with your doctor?
Jennifer: I went to see my daughter’s pediatrician for an appointment that had been booked for weeks. While I was there, I broke down in tears and explained what was going on. The doctor was so lovely. She told me it sounded like an infection called mastitis, which is super common for new moms. She explained to me that I just needed some antibiotics and to keep an eye on how it progressed. She was so sweet and completely understood why I was so worried about the situation. Since then, I’ve done a fair bit of research just out of curiosity, and it turns out there are so many breast conditions I had no idea even existed. I think it’s so amazing that cancer awareness pushes people to check themselves and to consult quickly. I’m certain it’s helping to save hundreds of lives every year.
The AEDITION: What advice would you give to someone who is feeling worried about consulting a doctor about a concern they have with their breasts?
Jennifer: I think the concern stems more from the fear of it possibly being something ‘big’ as opposed to the fear of consulting in itself. And I do think that people knowing there are other things the symptoms could point to — aside from cancer — is reassuring on that front. That being said, I think the urgency that has been created from awareness is crucial when it actually is cancer. I think, if you’re concerned, ask for help as soon as possible, but hold on to the fact that 85 percent of lumps and bumps that people consult about are not cancer at all.