Consultant Lyndsey Highton encourages all women to be more breast aware as part of her work as a Plastics and Breast Surgeon, working across the North West.
Here, she answers some of the most frequently asked questions about breast cancer, which will affect up to one in every seven women in the UK and explains how patients should check their breasts and what to do if they find a lump.
“Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast begin to divide and grow in an abnormal way, which eventually results in a tumour that can be seen or felt.
“The most widely known symptom is finding a lump, but it is not the only symptom of breast cancer. Other symptoms can include changes to the skin such as puckering or dimpling, a change in the colour of the breast, changes to the nipples such as one suddenly becoming inverted, developing a rash or producing a discharge, consistent breast pain, thickening of the breast or noticing a change in size or shape.
“Most breast changes are not because of cancer, however if you’re concerned you should always see your GP.”
“Breast cancer is most common in women over the age of 50, although younger women and men do also get the disease. If you are experiencing any symptoms and particularly if you have a history of breast cancer in your family, it is important to make an appointment with your GP.”
“It is important to get into the habit of checking your breasts regularly so that you get to know what is normal for you and can act quickly if you notice any changes.
“Thanks to lots of public health campaigns, women are becoming much more breast aware and are better informed about what to look out for. As part of this, it is highly recommended that women perform self-examinations several times a month to check for lumps and other changes to the breast tissue.
“Doing this every week, perhaps while you’re in the shower or as you’re getting dressed in the morning for example, is a good way to make it become habit and to get to know your body. There’s no special technique for self-examinations, but it is important to check the upper chest and armpits as well as the breasts.
“Breast Cancer Now – the cancer care and research charity has created a campaign to help make checking second nature called TLC. It encourages women to Touch their breasts to see if they can feel anything unusual, Look for changes and Check anything they’re concerned about with their doctor.”
“A lot of the risk factors affecting breast cancer are outside of our control but there are several easy things that women can do to reduce the likelihood. The first is to look closely at your lifestyle and make as many positive changes as possible. This might include taking more regular exercise, stopping smoking and losing weight if you have an unhealthy BMI.
“Secondly, carrying out regular self-examinations at home can help to make sure that if there are any changes, you spot them quickly.
“The final thing is to attend routine screenings and mammograms, if you are between 50 and 70 years old. Despite all the media attention surrounding breast cancer, the take-up of mammograms is still very low. I suspect this is due to fear of an intimate exam, and because they’re worried it will be painful. It’s important to stress that screening is quick and generally described as uncomfortable rather than painful. The professionals in these clinics are all female and are warm, friendly and reassuring. Ladies in this age-group need to take advantage of the free mammogram screening process as it can help to detect cancer early – when it is the most treatable.”
“Breast cancer is not one disease but lots of different diseases, so it requires very individualised treatment and care from a multidisciplinary team of oncologists and surgeons.
“While it is not curable in all cases, the outcomes have been improving greatly over the last decade and the range of treatment and care options available has improved dramatically. In fact, breast cancer treatment provides some of the best outcomes compared with many other cancers and it has one of the highest cure rates.
“In some cases, women may require reconstructive work once their treatment is complete and this is an area that’s also within my expertise. It is very gratifying to help someone overcome breast cancer and then go on to help them rebuild themselves and their confidence too.”
“If you find a lump or notice a change to your breasts it’s important to see your GP first and foremost. If they agree there is cause for concern, you will be referred to a ‘One Stop Breast Clinic’ at your local hospital where, depending on your age, you will be examined and may also have tests such as a ultrasound or a mammogram. In some cases, a biopsy may also be taken. If the tests shows cancer, an individualised treatment program will be put in place.
“The vast majority of women we see in clinic are not diagnosed with breast cancer, but it is important to seek help if you have any concerns at all.”