The Importance of Breast Self-Exams
- Fiona Kane, 56, discovered she had cancer after her friend’s Facebook post inspired her to perform a breast self-exam—which prompted her to find a lump and seek immediate medical advice. Doctors revealed she had invasive lobular breast cancer in her right breast and non-invasive ductal carcinoma in the other.
- It’s important to be aware of how your breasts normally look and feel, a major factor when it comes to breast cancer detection. Doing regular self-exams is one way to familiarize yourself with how your breasts normally feel so that you will be able to identify anything out of the ordinary like a lump or hard mass.
- Many women develop breast cancer every year, and the disease is the subject of much research. There are many treatment options out there, but treatment paths depend greatly on the specifics of each case. In Fiona Kane’s case, she underwent a double mastectomy and had her lymph nodes removed before undergoing chemotherapy.
- There are many people out there for cancer warriors to be vulnerable with, if they’d like. And whether that’s through a job or social media or simply connecting with your closest family and friends, it’s worth it to at least try.
After getting the lump in her breast checked out in January 2020, doctors revealed she had invasive lobular breast cancer in her right breast and non-invasive ductal carcinoma in the other. About a month after her diagnosis, she underwent a double mastectomy and had her lymph nodes removed before undergoing chemotherapy.Read More
“There was no negotiation, the right breast was coming off. But the left breast was really down to my decision because I did have cancer there it was covered by my insurance,” she explained.
Kane, who also had her lymph nodes removed before starting chemotherapy during the pandemic lockdown in April 2020, continued, “I had four taken out overall and two on the right were positive so they had to accelerate my treatment. I’m not entirely sure that I was processing anything, I was just putting one foot in front of the other at the time.”
“I literally had my surgery, saw my parents twice a day after my surgery and then a few weeks later I never saw them again until much later on.”
Luckily, with the help of an app called Belong, Kane was able to chat with others dealing with the same diagnosis, create friendships, and maintain support throughout her cancer battle.
“Around 15% of breast cancers are lobular, so it was good to find other people because I didn’t have much information about it. There was always someone online when I was wide awake at three o’clock in the morning,” Kane said. “It was really useful when I was having a bad night or because of steroids I couldn’t sleep. There was someone else who was online as well who I could reach out to. It helped me with the big changes.”
“They were always laughing and playing, not being worried or stressed about anything and just enjoying the pleasure of living. That was something I always looked forward to that made the treatment more bearable as I wasn’t seeing my family,” she added.
Now, nearly three years after her diagnosis, Kane continues to have semi-annual scans and the tissue, where the cancer was, checked.
“I had a test that gives you the likelihood of reoccurrence and I slotted into the very high,” she said. “My risk of recurrence is reduced significantly by taking hormone blockers, but I still have to be vigilant.”
How To Perform Self-Exams
Getting to know how your breasts look and feel may be one of the best ways to recognize when something is not quite right. “When we think about breast cancer prevention and awareness, the first step is that women need to feel comfortable with their breast and know what their breasts feel like normally,” says Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and an advisor to SurvivorNet. Here’s how, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation:
- While standing straight in front of a mirror, place your hands on your hips and look at your breasts for any swelling, bulging, changes in shape of breast or nipple (inverted), redness, rashes, or any fluid leaking. Then do the same with your arms in the air.
- Next, while lying down, use your right hand to examine your left breast and vice versa, while using your first three fingers to apply pressure. Ensure you cover the entire breast area, from your collarbone to below your ribcage and from your armpit to your cleavage area. Do the same self-exam standing or sitting up. Be sure to use light to medium pressure for the middle breast area and firmer pressure when feeling deep breast tissue.
Once you get the hang of it, Dr. Comen recommends you do it once a month – after your period. However, it should be emphasized that breast self-examination is NOT a replacement for mammography.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Being aware of how your breasts normally look and feel is an important factor when it comes to breast cancer detection. Doing regular self-exams is one way to familiarize yourself with how your breasts normally feel so that you will be able to identify anything out of the ordinary like a lump or hard mass.
Below are some other symptoms to look out for:
- New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
- Any change in the size or shape of the breast
- Swelling on all or part of the breast
- Skin dimpling or peeling
- Breast or nipple pain
- Nipple turning inward
- Redness or scaliness of breast or nipple skin
- Nipple discharge (not associated with breastfeeding)
Of course, these symptoms can be due to things other than cancer. For example, a lot of women experience breast tenderness during certain times in their menstrual cycles. If you’re worried — talk to your doctor about it. They may want to perform an exam, or even schedule a mammogram just to be safe.
The Importance of Breast Cancer Screening
Screening for breast cancer is typically done via mammogram, which looks for lumps in the breast tissue and signs of cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says women should begin yearly mammogram screening for breast cancer at age 45 if they are at average risk for breast cancer. The ACS also says those aged 40-44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year, and women age 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms.
For screening purposes, a woman is considered to be at average risk if she doesn’t have a personal history of breast cancer, a strong family history of breast cancer, a genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer such as a BRCA gene mutation or a medical history including chest radiation therapy before the age of 30.
Beyond genetics, family history and experience with radiation therapy, experiencing menstruation at an early age (before 12) or having dense breasts can also put you into a high-risk category. If you are at a higher risk for developing breast cancer, you should begin screening earlier.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Connie Lehman, chief of the Breast Imaging Division at Massachusetts General Hospital, said people who hadn’t reached menopause yet should prioritize getting a mammogram every year.
“We know that cancers grow more rapidly in our younger patients, and having that annual mammogram can be lifesaving,” Dr. Lehman said. “After menopause, it may be perfectly acceptable to reduce that frequency to every two years. But what I’m most concerned about is the women who haven’t been in for a mammogram for two, three or four years, those women that have never had a mammogram. We all agree regular screening mammography saves lives.”
Finding the Support You Need
During a cancer battle, it’s important to know that you are not alone. Kane had her social media community to help her see how many people she had in her corner, but you don’t have to be an avid Facebook user to get the support you need during your cancer battle.
There’s always people out there for you to be vulnerable with, if you’d like, and connecting with others as you battle the disease can make a world of difference. Another cancer warrior named Kate Hervey knows this all too well. A young college girl, she was shocked to be diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that tends to form near large joints in young adults, after seeing her doctor for tenderness and lumps in one of her legs.
Hervey, a nursing student at Michigan State, had to handle her cancer battle during the COVID-19 pandemic and scale back on her social activities as a high-risk patient. That’s when she turned to TikTok as a creative outlet and inspired thousands.
“One thing that was nice about TikTok that I loved and why I started posting more and more videos is how many people I was able to meet through TikTok and social media that are going through the same things,” she says. “I still text with this one girl who is 22. If I’m having a hard time, I will text her because she will understand. As much as my family and friends are supportive, it’s hard to vent to someone who doesn’t know what it’s really like.”
Hervey is now cancer-free and says she couldn’t have done it without the love and support of her TikTok followers.
“I feel like I’ve made an impact on other people and they have made an impact on me through TikTok, which is crazy to say. I can help people go through what I’ve been going through as well.” She has graciously agreed to allow SurvivorNet to use her content in order to help our community.
So while sharing your story to a vast Tik Tok audience might not be your thing, it’s important to consider opening up to others during your cancer battle. Even if it’s with a smaller group, you never know how much the support can help you – or help those you share with – unless you try.
Contributing: Survivornet Staff