The Importance of Breast Self-Exams
- Lisa Clemmett, 44-year-old mom of four from Greater Manchester, England, was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer after finding a lump in her right breast last December.
- Now, one year later, Clemmett has completed her treatments and has organized a charity event for next month.
- 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 Lisa Clemmett’s case, she had the lump in her breast removed along with her lymph nodes, and she underwent four rounds of chemotherapy and 19 rounds of radiotherapy.
Now, one year later and having completed treatment, the 44-year-old school nurse was able to celebrate Christmas with her family and focus her energy on planning a charity event for next month.Read More
To keep her spirits lifted throughout treatment, Clemmett chose to continue working as a school nurse because she wanted to “keep positive and do what I normally do.”
She explained, “But during my fourth round of chemotherapy, it was a different and stronger type, and I had an infection and was really poorly in July. Then I had time off work. I was also really poorly with the last chemotherapy.”
Then, Clemmett underwent radiotherapy, which she remembers being “really hard,” but she pushed through with hope knowing the treatments would eventually come to an end.
She has since returned to work, but doing her job from home while she recovers and hopes to go back into the schools after the holidays.
In the meantime, she has her partner Rob Williams and four children, Jack, Connor, Lewis, and Ellie, all who have been by her side since the start of her cancer journey.
“My children and partner have been my rock and looked after me throughout my treatment.”
Clemmett is also thankful for the community support as she is holding a Macmillan charity event in October in hopes to raise money for the organization.
The mom, who hopes to spread awareness for women to do regular breast checks, will remain on medication for 10 years to help prevent her cancer from returning.
Stage 3 Breast Cancer
Stage three breast cancer typically refers to a relatively large tumor which may have invaded nearby skin or muscle tissue. It may also mean that lymph nodes near your breast and/or under your armpit are involved.
In most cases, stage three breast cancers will need chemotherapy. If the cancer is also hormone receptor-positive, aggressive hormonal therapy may be offered as well.
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.”
Understanding Your Risk
The risk of developing breast cancer varies greatly from person to person, so it’s important to discuss your specific risk level with your doctor. That being said, there are some important risk factors to keep in mind.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Comen laid out several risk factors for breast cancer including:
- Being a woman: Women are at a higher risk for breast cancer, though men can get the disease too.
- Age: “Breast cancer becomes increasingly more common as women age,” Dr. Comen said.
- Family history: “Some people think that breast cancer is only inherited through genes on the mom’s side,’ Dr. Comen said. “But it can also be related to genetic mutations that could be found on the father’s side.”
- Having had a prior biopsy on an abnormal area: “There are different markers, that if a woman has had a biopsy, it’s important that she talk to her doctor about whether those markers are lending themselves to an increased risk of breast cancer,” Dr. Comen said. If you’ve had a biopsy that indicated atypical hyperplasia, for example, you are at an increased risk of breast cancer. Atypical hyperplasia isn’t cancer, but it is a precancerous condition that describes an accumulation of abnormal cells in the milk ducts and lobules of the breast.
- Radiation exposure: Cancer survivors who’ve had radiation to their chest are at an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Lifetime estrogen exposure: “About 2/3 of breast cancer are driven by the hormone estrogen,” Dr. Comen said. “So, that means if a woman has had her period at an early age and started to go through puberty at an early age, at seven, eight, nine, and potentially a later age of menopause, means that her lifetime of having had menstrual periods and being exposed to higher levels of estrogen is higher, and therefore her risk of breast cancer is slightly higher.”
- Not having a child before age 30 or never having children
- Drinking alcohol
- Lack of exercise: “While there’s more research to be done in this area, it looks like if a woman is not exercising, she may also increase her risk for breast cancer,” Dr. Comen said.
Finding the Support You Need
During a cancer battle, it’s important to know that you are not alone. Clemmett had her partner, four children, and community to help her see how many people she had in her corner, but you don’t have a big family 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