Breast awareness helps early detection of breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK. Out of every 100 cancers diagnosed, 15 are breast cancer.

Early detection, catching the disease at an early stage and effective treatment has improved outcomes.

More women are being treated early. There are 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the US.

Screening programmes have played a huge role. However, 50-70% of younger women under the age of 50, detect breast cancers themselves. Breast awareness is key to early detection of breast cancer.

The burden of breast cancer

1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.

Of those who develop breast cancer, 1 in 38 will die from it. This number may be much higher in developing countries without a screening programme and reduced awareness of the disease.

Breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women worldwide.

Certain lifestyle choices increase your risk of breast cancer. Aiming for a healthy weight and exercise routine helps in reducing the risk of breast cancer.

If you take birth control pills or hormones after menopause, this can affect your risk of breast cancer.

Although more common after the age of 50, many young women develop breast cancer, at times with no risk factor.

This is where breast awareness comes in. If you know what to look for, you can detect changes in your breast and seek a medical opinion.

Who is at higher risk of breast cancer?

Certain women are at higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Remember that when we say “high-risk”, it doesn’t mean that all women with these conditions will develop breast cancer. Some women who do not have any of these factors may develop breast cancer.

Risk factors that you can change:

  • Overweight – a BMI of more than 30, especially after menopause.
  • Inactive lifestyle
  • Contraceptive pill- If you stop taking pills for 10 years, the risk decreases. Pills are taken by younger women. The risk of breast cancer in them is low anyway.
  • HRT – If you take hormone replacement therapy after menopause for more than 5 years, the risk of breast cancer increases.
Risk factors that you have no control over:

  • Age – women over 50 are more likely to get breast cancer.
  • Family history – Women with a 1st degree relative with breast cancer have an increased chance of developing breast cancer. It doesn’t mean that all women with a close relative with breast cancer will develop it.
Some women can have faulty genes that can increase their chances of getting breast cancer. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are 2 such faulty genes.

When Angelina Jolie underwent risk-reducing surgery by having a double mastectomy, attitudes, and acceptance of this treatment changed. In the UK, 2 times more women came forward to get tested for these faulty genes.

Only 2 in 100 women with breast cancer have a faulty gene. In the vast majority, there is no genetic predisposition.

  • Exposure to radiation – Exposure to x-rays, CT scans and even mammograms can increase the risk of breast cancer, but the risk is very small.
Women who have radiotherapy as treatment for another cancer have increased risk.

  • Ethnicity – White women are more at risk of breast cancer than any other ethnicity.
  • Periods – Having periods early and a late menopause puts you at risk of breast cancer.
  • Children – Women who have more children and have children at a younger age are at less risk of breast cancer.
Warning signs that should prompt you to see a doctor

If you notice any of these changes, do see your doctor:

  • Lump in the breast or armpit
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Change in size of the breast
  • Dimpling of the skin of the breast
  • Rash around the nipple
  • Nipple sunken into the skin
Pain in the breast is generally not a sign of breast cancer.

Breast awareness

Being aware of your breast is instrumental in finding cancer early, especially in younger women.

You should know what your breasts look and feel like. Any change should alert you.

Get it checked out if anything worries you.

Your doctor would examine you, possibly request imaging like ultrasound or mammogram if need be.

If anything suspicious is found, you would have a biopsy, a small piece of tissue is taken, which is then examined under the microscope.

If it’s all clear, which is the case in the vast majority, you would be reassured that there is nothing wrong.

I would like to point out that in our Muslim communities, breast awareness is lacking. Women are shy to check their breasts and even if they find something not quite right, they are shy to seek medical attention.

Education and awareness are important in our communities. Detecting cancer and treating it early makes a huge difference in survival.

The debate between breast awareness and breast self-exam (BSE)

For many years, doctors have advocated that one of the best ways to pick up cancer early is to examine your breasts at frequent intervals. Monthly BSE has been recommended by many.

BSE is a thorough examination of the breast where you look at the breasts and feel them in a particular way. You can read about the 5 steps of BSE here.

Most women are uncomfortable doing this.

Baines writes in Canadian Medical Association Journal that in 1979, 94% of American women were aware of BSE but only 40% practiced it.

So clearly hesitation in examining one’s own breasts transcends boundaries of culture, ethnicity, and possibly literacy.

Baines goes on to say that “fear, dislike or dread of breast self-examination is aroused by apprehension of cancer, pain and death.”

He talks about how BSE involves using the mind, fingers, eyes and breast of the same individual. You have to make a judgment that all is good, or that something is amiss.

The irony of the procedure is that the “success” of BSE is when you find the disease!

Any other routine health-maintaining activities like taking care of your teeth, having a good diet have immediate or long-term benefits, which motivates you to perform these actions.

The good news for women hesitant to do BSE is that a “2008 study of nearly 400,000 women in Russia and China reported that breast self-examination does not have a meaningful impact on breast cancer survival rates and may even cause harm by prompting unnecessary biopsies (removal and examination of suspicious tissue), ” as reported in

Since the study was published, the American Cancer Society does not recommend BSE. still advocates BSE. Doctors in the UK are still divided over whether BSE should be encouraged or not. also writes “The biggest misconception about mammography is that it picks up every breast cancer. In fact, mammography misses at least 10% of breast cancer. So if you feel a lump that doesn’t show up on a mammogram, bring it to your doctor’s attention. Get it evaluated.”— Susan Greenstein Orel, M.D.

If you feel there is a blur between BSE and breast awareness, you are not the only one!

The number of articles that are written clarifying the difference between the 2 is many.

Whereas BSE has many different steps which you need to perform in a standard way, breast awareness is simply being conscious of any changes in how your breasts feel and look.

There is no doubt that breast awareness should be encouraged and promoted from an early age. Most women would notice changes while showering or undressing.

In the United Kingdom, women are encouraged to be breast-aware from the age of 18

So you thought that this was a “women’s” topic?

Did you know that men can develop breast cancer as well?

The symptoms of breast cancer in men are the same. It is much rarer in men than women.

It is generally men over 60 who develop breast cancer.

Men who are at risk because of faulty genes are encouraged to be breast-aware, just like women.

My final advice

Be breast-aware.

If you find anything suspicious, seek medical attention at once.

Encourage elderly ladies in your communities to be breast-aware and attend regular screening.