If you’re like most women, you find it hard to put your own health first. Whether it’s minding your grandchildren, caring for your elderly parents or simply fitting in all your chores and an active social life, it’s easy to come up with a million reasons to skip health checks.
But the reality is that around three quarters of breast cancers are diagnosed in women aged 50-plus, so avoiding breast screening isn’t something older women can afford to do if they value their health.
Many women believe that self-examination is enough to pick up changes to their breasts that could be caused by cancer, making breast screening unnecessary.
But self-examination doesn’t replace expert breast screening when it comes to caring for your own wellbeing, because a breast screen can detect cancer long before you or your doctor are able to see or feel any changes. Always being breast-aware is, however, a great habit to have in between your breastscreen appointments, which come around every two years. We’ll come back to this later in the story.
Detecting breast cancer at its earliest stage is important. Not only is treatment more likely to be effective if the cancer is at an early stage, but more treatment options are available and they’re likely to be less invasive too, because the cancer usually hasn’t spread from the breast to other parts of the body. A recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report has also shown that women with breast cancer that was detected through screening were less likely to die due to the disease compared to women diagnosed with breast cancer who had never screened.
Everyone’s breasts look and feel different, and it is also important for all women to become familiar with what’s normal for them.
No particular method for checking your breasts is recommended over another but being breast-aware means getting to know the normal look and feel of your breasts as part of regular activities such as having a shower, getting dressed, putting on body lotion or looking in the mirror.
While lumps are probably the best-known warning signs, they’re not the only change worth investigating. Pay particular attention to unusual pain in your breasts that doesn’t go away, check for a change in the size or shape of your breasts and look for changes to the nipple such as crusting, ulcers, redness, inversion and discharge coming from your nipples. Also look for changes in the skin of your breasts such as redness or dimpling.
If you spot one or more of these changes, there’s no need to panic because it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got breast cancer, but you should book an appointment with your GP or health professional as soon as possible for further examination or testing. Your doctor may send you for diagnostic tests to help health professionals better understand what’s going on inside the breast.
For women who have no signs or symptoms of breast cancer, regular breast screening is recommended in addition to being breast-aware, particularly for women aged 50-74 because being female and getting older increase your risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer and the evidence of the benefit of regular screening is strongest in this age group.
You should have a breast screen even if you don’t have a family history of breast cancer, because 9 out of 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.
Breast screens are conducted one-on-one with female health professionals, and appointments at one of BreastScreen Queensland’s 260 locations across the state can be booked online at breastscreen.qld.gov.au or by calling 13 20 50. No doctor’s referral is required.
During a screening, two images of each breast are taken and while some women experience slight discomfort, this lasts no more than 10 seconds per image.
“From walking in the door to walking out, it’s about half an hour,” Helen Archibald, the clinical director of BreastScreen Queensland in Mackay, says of the screening process. “Our radiographers are all women and your privacy is very important to us.”
Two, specially trained doctors look at every single screening image and if just one of the doctors feels further investigation is required, a third, senior radiologist will decide if the woman needs to return for further testing.
Dr Archibald points out that with the digital world awash with dodgy health information, it’s key that women understand that breast screening is the most effective way to detect breast cancer in its early stage.
Early detection by screening has contributed to the breast cancer mortality rate for women dropping from 30 deaths per 100,000 individuals in 1968 to 20 deaths person per 100,000 in 2016.
“One of the most important messages we have is for women to come back again and again,” Dr Archibald concludes. “Having had one breast screen does not mean your risk has gone away – the risk remains and early detection does make a difference.”
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.