File Photo: Breast examination

By Sola Ogundipe

Breast cancer has overtaken lung cancer as the world’s mostly commonly-diagnosed cancer, according to statistics released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC, in December 2020.

On this year’s  World Cancer Day, February 4, with its slogan “I can and I will”, the goal is to reduce deaths from breast cancer by promoting breast health, improving timely cancer detection and ensuring access to quality care.

Common signs and symptoms 

There are many different signs and symptoms of breast cancer, so regularly checking your breasts for anything different or new is important.

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Common breast cancer signs and symptoms include a lump or swelling in the breast, upper chest or armpit. You might feel the lump, but not see it. Changes in the appearance, size or shape of the breast, and anything unusual are all warning signs. 

Common causes 

There are many different factors that can affect your chances of developing breast cancer. There’s no one single reason – it results from a combination of lifestyle, genes and surrounding environment.

Risk factors

There are breast cancer risk factors that you can change such as healthy lifestyle, including drinking less alcohol, avoiding smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and keeping physically active.

However there are also factors that you cannot change. Being a woman is one of  these factors, as  99 percent of new cases of breast cancer occur in women.

Age is another uncontrollable factor. Getting older is a risk factor as 80 percent of breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50. Most men who get breast cancer are over 60.

A family history of breast cancer is unchangeable, so if you have a family history of breast cancer, you and some other members of your family may have a higher than average risk of developing the disease, however, there are ways you can manage your risk.

Early detection saves lives 

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and a leading cause of death in women over 50 but the survival is improving  due to a combination of improvements in treatment and care, earlier detection through screening and a focus on targets, including faster diagnosis.

Breast Self Examination (BSE) 

The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance of successful treatment. Getting to know what your breasts look and feel like normally means it’s easier to spot any unusual changes and check them with your doctor. Checking only takes a few minutes. There’s no special technique and you don’t need training. 

Step 1: First, stand facing a mirror, with hands on your hips. Look for changes such as redness, dimpling or a scaly skin, or a change in size or shape. Nipple changes should also be noted, whether it’s in the shape, colour or contour of the nipple. Nipple discharge, which could be clear, cloudy or bloody, should be reported.

Step 2: While standing or sitting, raise one arm and place your hand behind your head. With the opposite hand, use the pads of the fingers to feel your breast in small circular motions. Some women prefer to start in one corner and go back and forth and up or down across the breast. Others prefer a spiral pattern, working around the breast and inward toward the nipple. No matter what technique you choose, you want to cover the entire breast from the clavicle to the rib cage. You also want to reach the side of your breast under the armpit. Repeat with your other breast.

Step 3: Repeat step 2 while lying down. This will give you a more accurate impression of the terrain of your breasts. When lying down the breast tissue spreads evenly over the chest wall and is as thin as possible, making it much easier to feel all the breast tissue. Use the finger pads of the middle fingers on your left hand to feel for lumps in the right breast. Use overlapping circular motions of the finger pads to feel the breast tissue.

Pressure points


Light pressure is needed to feel the tissue closest to the skin; medium pressure to feel a little deeper; and firm pressure to feel the tissue closest to the chest and ribs. It is normal to feel a firm ridge in the lower curve of each breast, but you should tell your doctor if you feel anything else out of the ordinary. If you’re not sure how hard to press, talk with your doctor or nurse. Use each pressure level to feel the breast tissue before moving on to the next spot.

Adopt the right pattern

Move around the breast in an up and down pattern starting at an imaginary line drawn straight down your side from the underarm and moving across the breast to the middle of the chest bone. Be sure to check the entire breast area going down until you feel only ribs and up to the neck or collar bone.

The up-and-down pattern (sometimes called the vertical pattern) is the most effective pattern for covering the entire breast without missing any breast tissue. Repeat the examination on your left breast, putting your left arm behind your head and using the finger pads of your right hand to do the examination.

Prevention and control 

It pays to take control of your breast health.  Be aware, informed and not afraid.  The best way to cure cancer is to detect it early.  Use all three steps – Breast self-examination, mammography and clinical examination to find breast cancer early.


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