At What Age Should You Stop Breast Feeding?

Unless you work in the marketing department for one of the infant formula companies, if you have read any of the literature on breastfeeding, it’s hard not to agree with pediatric health experts when they say that when it comes to a newborn’s development, breastfeeding is the way to go. Breastfeeding provides numerous health benefits, may actually increase IQ and promotes a strong bond between the mother and child.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and then for as long as mother and baby desire. The World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.

Breastfeeding for the first six months is crucial. The World Health Organization recommends that mothers initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth; that infants should be exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health, and thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods, while continuing to be breastfed; and, breastfeeding should continue for up to two years or beyond. 

The World Health Organization

There has been a movement to increase awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding and address some of the issues that discourage it. This includes nearly nonexistent workplace accommodation, lack of social support and marketing pressure by companies that have a vested interest in mothers not continuing to breast feed.

Research has shown breastfeeding to be one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival. Despite the research and these recommendations and the work of breastfeeding advocates, less than 30 percent of American mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for even 6 months. And, this is not an issue just here in the U.S. According to the World Health Organization, there is not a country in the world that meets these standards, but if they did, and breastfeeding was practiced universally, the lives of more than 800,000 children would be saved every year.

Breastfeeding is a global issue, but it is also very much a personal issue. Mothers who want to breastfeed can be overwhelmed by the demands of a new baby. Operating on very little sleep, a new mom starts off feeling unprepared and inadequate and that can either balance out or get worse largely depending upon the amount of support she has. There is a reason that “it takes a village” has become somewhat of a cliché: it happens to be universally true when speaking of childcare, and even more so in the beginning when trying to make decisions about breastfeeding.

At what age should you stop breastfeeding? There is no answer to that question. It is personal and different for every mother and child. Ideally, mothers should have the support to breastfeed her child for as long as it is a positive experience for both of them. Realistically, the answer falls somewhere closer to as long as she can tune out the voices of a society that values convenience over substance. Many obstacles exist for mothers who wish to continue breastfeeding and that does not seem likely to change anytime soon.

Benefits of Breast Feeding Your Baby

“The health effects of breastfeeding are well recognized and apply to mothers and children in developed nations such as the United States as well as to those in developing countries. Breast milk is uniquely suited to the human infant’s nutritional needs and is a live substance with unparalleled immunological and anti-inflammatory properties that protect against a host of illnesses and diseases for both mothers and children.”  The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding

Despite the fact that there is an ongoing dispute with regard to the appropriateness of breastfeeding in public, there is overwhelming consensus that breastfeeding is not only beneficial to the baby but also to the mother. Breastfeeding is strongly recommended by both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The opinions of the Surgeon General and prestigious medical organizations may be important and definitely good to know, but making the decision to breastfeed your baby is a personal one. This is still true despite the well-meaning advice that you will undoubtedly receive from family and friends.  Knowing the benefits of breastfeeding may help in that decision. Research has shown that babies who have been breastfed have reduced risk of:

  • Asthma
  • Respiratory infections
  • Leukemia (during childhood)
  • Obesity (during childhood)
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Ear infections
  • Eczema
  • Necrotizing enterocolitis, a disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract in premature babies

Although the list isn’t as long, there are also important benefits to the mother. Breastfeeding is instrumental in helping you lose pregnancy weight a bit faster because it does burn extra calories. During the process, the hormone, oxytocin, is released into the mother’s system which helps the uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size. There is also evidence that breastfeeding may reduce risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

Economic and Environmental Benefits of Breastfeeding

Not having to buy, measure and warm formula, as well as washing and sterilizing bottles can save money and time that can be spent actually enjoying your baby. But, there are other benefits that most people don’t consider. Breastfeeding contributes not only to the improved health of children and mothers, but also economically and environmentally. If your significant other doesn’t agree with this, you might want to consult a divorce attorney to discuss a prenuptial agreement with

Breast milk is a naturally-renewable resource. It does not require packaging, shipping or disposal, which means that it does not waste scarce resources, create pollution or negatively impact the environment. Because, as the Surgeon General said, breastfeeding protects against a host of illnesses and diseases for both mothers and children, healthcare costs are reduced.

It is really hard to find a downside to breastfeeding. There are, nevertheless, individual situations where it may not seem like the right choice. Some women prefer not to breastfeed in public, which can be very restrictive to someone with an otherwise active lifestyle. In the same vein, there is the flexibility that comes from knowing that the father or another caregiver can bottle-feed the baby when mom isn’t immediately available. There’s also the time commitment and structure imposed by being on-call every few hours for six months or longer.

There are many benefits to breastfeeding, including the unique bond that develops between mother and child during this time. That said, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The decision really must be a personal one.

For more information, please watch the following video:

What Foods Should You Eat While Getting Cancer Treatment? 

We are constantly learning more about cancer. There are more and better treatment options available, and there has been a lot of success in increasing survival rates and quality of life. That said, cancer treatment can be really tough. Whether your treatment plan includes surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or one of the other methods, there are bound to be difficult days. No one will argue that the side effects can be brutal. You need all of the support you can get during this period, and that includes nutritional support.

Making healthy food choices should be an obvious decision. A balance diet, full of healthy, energy-producing nutrients will not only make you feel better, it will also positively affect your recovery. This is not the time to try some new, extreme, fad diet, even if it is being enthusiastically endorsed by your favorite celebrity. Because nutrient needs of cancer patients vary from person to person, your cancer team will be you best source for developing a nutritional plan. You may be surprised how beneficial this can be. Eating well during your cancer treatment may help you…

  • Feel better and maintain energy and strength
  • Control weight, both weight gain and weight loss
  • Better tolerate treatment-related side effects
  • Reduce risk of infection
  • Speed up rate of recovery

Make Healthy Food Choices

Some basic guidelines include:

  • Proteins – during and after cancer treatment, extra protein is usually needed to heal tissues and fight infection. Recommended sources include fish, poultry, lean red meat, eggs, low-fat dairy products, nuts, nut butters, dried beans, peas, lentils and soy-based foods.
  • Fats – play an important role in nutrition and serve as a rich source of energy for the body. Choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats more often than saturated fats or trans fats.
  • Carbohydrates – are the body’s major source of energy. Be sure to choose whole grains that contain all of the essential and naturally occurring nutrients. Other sources of carbohydrates include potatoes, rice, spaghetti, pasta, cereals, corn, peas, and beans.
  • Water – sufficient water and other liquids are important at all time but even more so during cancer treatment. Common side effects are vomiting or diarrhea, which can quickly lead to dehydration without continual replenishment of liquids.
  • Vitamins and minerals – the body needs these to function properly and levels can be disrupted by treatment. You will want to discuss adding these to your diet with your healthcare team.

Foods That May Help with Specific Issues

These are not necessarily proven other than anecdotally:

  • Carrots are said to be a chemotherapy superfood, due to containing compounds that may counteract a mechanism in the body that can interfere with treatment.
  • Rice and bananas may help with chemotherapy-related diarrhea.
  • Ginger and lemon drops help with that queasy stomach that so often follows chemotherapy.
  • Custard can be a good choice if treatment has left you with mouth sores.

There is no hard and fast list of food recommendations because everyone’s journey through cancer treatment is different. Many will lose their appetite, and the goal will simply be to find something they can eat. Others will develop different reactions at different stages. The overall goal to keep in mind is to maintain as nutritionally balanced a diet as can be tolerated, and make sure to consume plenty of liquids.

Breast Cancer Treatment Options

There’s no way around it. Learning that you have breast cancer is still going to be one of the worst days of your life. The initial shock, panic and overwhelming urge to deny that it is really happening will fade somewhat with time, but life is immediately changed. On a more positive note, there are now a wide range of breast cancer treatment options and they are getting better and more effective all the time. In fact, since 1989, the mortality rate for women with breast cancer had dropped by 36%.

Which treatment option that you choose will depend on several factors and be decided in consultation with your oncology team. How far the cancer has spread determines the stage of your disease. Other factors taken into consideration when determining the correct treatment protocols include:

  • Tumor size in relation to the size of the breast
  • Pathology tests results – testing is done for hormone receptors, HER2 receptors, grade of the cells and proliferation rate of the cells
  • Pre- or post-menopause
  • Overall health condition
  • Age
  • Family history
  • Other risk factors suggesting a predisposition for developing breast cancer

Before moving forward with a treatment plan, you will need to decide whether you want to explore the possibility of clinical trials. Standard cancer treatments and other medical devices are those that experts agree are the best options. They have proven useful in fighting breast cancer and are widely accepted and used. Clinical trials involve methods that are being tested. They have been approved for a research study, and there is the belief that there is the potential to improve on the standard treatments. Depending upon how well your particular situation fits the study, there may be the option of being a part of it. Obviously, this offers both great possibilities as well as great risk.

Standard Breast Cancer Treatment Options

These treatment methods may be used alone or in combination for breast cancer on Long Island and worldwide.:

  • Surgery – the goal is to remove not only the tumor, but also enough of the margin area to be able to test for any spreading of the cancer. Types of surgery include a lumpectomy, partial mastectomy, radical mastectomy and reconstruction.
  • Chemotherapy – a systemic therapy, meaning that the combination of drugs travel in the bloodstream throughout the entire body, designed to either destroy cancer cells or slow their growth.
  • Radiation therapy – uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Unlike chemotherapy, which is systemic, only the nearby skin or cells treated with the radiation are affected.
  • Hormone therapy – when cancer cells have hormone receptors, hormone therapy drugs, such as blockers or inhibitors, may be used to destroy cancer cells by cutting off their supply of hormones.
  • Targeted therapy – uses drugs that block the specific breast cancer cells without harming normal cells, often reducing side effects.

In addition, and used in conjunction with the standard protocols, several types of complementary treatment are being used to help control and reduce many of the symptoms of breast cancer as well as side effects of treatment. Some of these are:

  • Acupuncture
  • Hypnosis
  • Massage
  • Meditation
  • Music Therapy
  • Yoga

Along with the treatment options that have been determined to be the best fit for you, it will be important to have a plan in place that ensures that you maintain a healthy diet, get a reasonable amount of exercise and have a support system in place to help manage all of the moving pieces and keep you sane.

If you would like to learn more, please watch the following video:

Female Sexual Dysfunction Issues from Breast Cancer

There was a time before pink ribbons. There were no marathons. October was all about jack-o-lanterns and ghosts. Breast cancer, or any type of cancer for that matter, was not something that was openly discussed. Or mentioned. There was something shameful about cancer. As recently as the mid-1900s, people spoke about cancer in whispers and allowed relatives to die in attics rather than let anyone know they had cancer.

Obviously, times have changed. Awareness campaigns have brought this once hidden disease front and center. The entire month of October is dedicated to breast cancer awareness, and the world is seemingly awash in pink. In fact, there is a chart depicting the colors for all of the different types of cancer. The vast majority of people have either experienced a bout with cancer or know someone who has. It is still a dreaded disease, but it no longer carries a stigma of shame.

Except, sometimes it still does. Men have sexual and intimacy issues related to certain types of cancers and women have their own list. Breast cancer is, perhaps the one that affects women the most, if for no other reason than it is so wide-spread. Statistically, 1 out of 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer sometime during her life. The survival rate gets better all the time but sexual side effects can take their toll long after treatment is over. According to the National Cancer Institute, 50% of women who undergo treatment for breast cancer experience long-term sexual dysfunction.

According to Susan R. Davis, MD, of Victoria, Australia’s Monash University Medical School, “Sexual problems are among the most common and least talked about side effects of breast cancer treatment. About 70% of the women in our study were experiencing a meaningful loss of desire and sexual function a full two years after diagnosis.”

Body image, vaginal dryness and uncertainty about what to expect can play large roles. So, can having premature menopause be brought on by chemotherapy. It can be temporary that lasts during and for a period of time following treatment or it can be permanent. The ovaries stop functioning, and hormone levels plummet over a period of weeks or months rather than over a few years as it does when it happens naturally. Menopause is rarely pleasant, but the suddenness of it happening prematurely can significantly intensify symptoms for younger, premenopausal women.

Fortunately, the news isn’t all bad! Breast cancer may initially put a halt to all thoughts and desires for sex and intimacy but things do not have to stay that way. A lot of women are uncertain or even afraid to have sex. Their partners may also be hesitant for fear of hurting them or being perceived as pushing something to quickly. If this goes on for very long, professional counseling should be considered. For many others, there are some simple ways to move past this roadblock that have proven effective. Some suggestions are:

Vaginal moisturizers – unlike lubricants, which are used during sex, these are absorbed to introduce moisture back into the vaginal area for a period of several days

Lubricants – in addition to the vaginal moisturizers, if there is still a painful sensation during intercourse, lubricants can help

Exercises  Kegel exercises, focusing on tightening and releasing the sphincter muscle, can improve intercourse

If you are experiencing some level of sexual dysfunction during your struggle with breast cancer, know that you aren’t alone. Talk to your doctor. Get a referral for counseling. Talk with your partner and trusted friends. Don’t be silent.

Is It Safe to Start Exercising After Treatment?  

Hurray! You just walked out of your last cancer treatment! Depending on the amount of time that has passed since your original diagnosis, you have spent several months or more trapped in what often felt like a never-ending nightmare. There have been times when you questioned ever making it through but, finally, here you are. Now, you can go home or head to the beach or book a cruise and just do nothing for a long, much-deserved rest. Right?

Maybe not…

Actually, you probably weren’t thinking that at all. Becoming the next cancer survivor and making it through treatment is a major turning point. Life rarely goes back to the way it was before diagnosis. The vast majority of those that have walked this path before you have found a new priority in life and it is twofold; getting the most out of each additional moment that has been given to you and keeping cancer from returning.

Common sense and current research agree that exercise for cancer patients will help for both. It’s fairly obvious that your level of fitness can only add to being able to enjoy the things in life that are most important. Exercise will certainly help with that. As for the benefits of exercise for those who have completed cancer treatment, multiple studies are confirming that exercise can increase energy levels, improve quality of life, decrease fatigue and reduce the chances of cancer returning.

According to Kerry Courneya, PhD, professor and Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Cancer at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, “Several recent studies suggest that higher levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of the cancer coming back, and a longer survival after a cancer diagnosis.”

In fact, it is now believed that exercise during treatment can also be beneficial for your health care.  Research strongly suggests that it is safe, both during and after cancer treatment, and that it can make a positive difference in how you feel and how your body responds and tolerates treatment. Of course, the type and level of exercise will depend on your overall health and should only be started after getting your doctor’s approval.

Types of Exercises for Cancer Patients

Suggestions for types of exercise that can help cancer patients include:

  • Flexibility Exercises – this is primarily stretching, designed to aid in maintaining mobility.
  • Aerobic Exercise – also known as cardio, strengthens the heart and lungs.  Walking, jogging, swimming and similar aerobic exercise lowers the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes, as well as promoting weight loss.
  • Resistance Training – use of weights or isometric exercises, which build muscle, important because people lose muscle, but gain fat, during cancer treatment.

If you did not exercise consistently before your cancer diagnosis or, even if you did, getting started on an exercise program during or following treatment may feel like more than you can manage. Life is hectic and demanding without cancer: throw it in the mix and everything can feel overwhelming. The good news is that exercise can help alleviate that feeling. The benefits can be significant. You don’t have to train for marathons. All you have to do is just get started.

If you would like to learn more about this, please watch the following video:

Does Acupuncture Help Cancer Treatment?      

There are still those who dismiss acupuncture as having a legitimate role in the area of medicine and healing. They are uninformed. This integral part of traditional Chinese medicine has been around for thousands of years and is no longer confined to only Chinese medical centers and small offices hidden in strip malls. Acupuncture is now being taught at Harvard Medical School.

No, the folks at Harvard are not in the process of closing the door on current cancer treatment and replacing it with acupuncture. What is happening, though, is the recognition of the important role that it and other forms of complementary treatment can have for cancer and many other conditions. Steadily, and with increasing acceptance, this ancient healing technique is being incorporated into medical practices all over the country. It is estimated that, currently, a third of all acupuncturists who are certified to practice in the U.S. are medical doctors.

Acupuncture is done through the process of inserting very fine, FDA-approved (since 1996), metal needles into precise points on the body. Insertion locations are based on meridians, which are a highly complex network of energy pathways. Long before being deemed worthy of study at Harvard, practitioners of this ancient form of treatment relied on a deep understanding of how the body works, all without benefit of modern scientific equipment.

Does Acupuncture Help in Treating Cancer?

If the question was “does acupuncture heal cancer?”, it would be harder to answer. Some advocates would say that it can, while the majority would drown them out by saying there is no evidence to substantiate that. But, what can claim to heal or cure cancer? What acupuncture has been proven to do is to be very effective at relieving many of the symptoms associated with cancer and the side effects of cancer treatment.

Several independent studies have borne this out, especially one published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, based on a group of breast cancer patients undergoing high-dose chemotherapy. The patients who were given acupuncture along with traditional medications experienced significantly less nausea than those who did not receive acupuncture. Other studies found similar results with post-chemotherapy fatigue, pain relief and a preliminary study in Sweden reported acupuncture cutting hot flashes in half.

Cancer Symptoms Controlled or Reduced with Acupuncture

Acupuncture has been shown to be effective in relieving or reducing many of the symptoms associated with breast cancer and other types of cancer, as well as the side effects of other forms of treatment. Some of the most common include:

  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea – associated with chemotherapy
  • Vomiting – associated with chemotherapy
  • Weight loss
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia and inability to sleep through the night
  • Lack appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Hot flashes
  • Nerve issues
  • Constipation and diarrhea
  • Digestion issues following surgery

Western medicine has been slow to embrace the use of acupuncture and other forms of seemingly non-scientific medicine. That is changing and our options are the better for it. The medical community is beginning to embrace the complementary nature of the incorporation of acupuncture into treatment plans for cancer; to be used in addition to, not in replacement of, current recommended treatment protocols. If tiny needles can help relieve any of the list above, perhaps the question should be “why not give patients the benefit of acupuncture?”

Can Getting a Biopsy Spread Cancer?

Few things are harder to deal with in life than being diagnosed with cancer. Having this happen to someone you love can be even more difficult. The shock, fear and uncertainty about the future are more than enough to deal with. No one should also be faced with bad information in the form of myths and internet rumors making it even more confusing to know what to do next.

The idea that a biopsy can spread cancer has been floating around for years. Unfortunately, when people hear things often enough, a certain aura of credibility begins to form. This may be harmless and even somewhat entertaining when it’s about Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster, but it is a totally different matter when it might make someone opt not to have a test that could provide a valuable diagnosis.

Needle biopsies, the primary method of diagnosing many types of cancer, do not cause the cancer cells to spread. In fact, the Mayo Clinic did a study on 2,000 patients, which showed no evidence that biopsies cause disease to spread. What it did show, however, is that patients whose diagnoses are confirmed by biopsies have better outcomes and longer survival rates than those who don’t.

The biopsy is an extremely valuable tool for the doctor to use in making a definitive diagnosis and choosing the best treatment for the patient. There have also been many cases in which the biopsy was instrumental in determining that a growth or lump was benign, thereby sparing the patient from a needless surgery. How unfortunate would it be to have a breast removed only to discover that a simple test could have revealed that it was unnecessary? That is the danger of inaccurate information, especially for those who don’t choose to view website.

Biopsies spreading cancer is not the only cancer-related myth floating around. Here are some of the more well-known ones:

  • Does eating sugar make cancer worse? No. Cancer cells consume more sugar than normal cells but eating sugar will not make cancer worse nor will stopping make cancer go away.
  • Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer? No. Despite all of the sad tales of mice on the internet, researchers have determined there is no evidence to support that this is true.
  • Is cancer contagious? No. Although there may be a very slight risk in the case of organ donation from someone who had cancer.
  • Does attitude, either positive or negative, affect risk or recovery from cancer? No. Although a positive attitude may aid in coping with the disease.
  • Will cancer get worse if exposed to air? No.
  • Do cell phones cause cancer? No. This is another popular theory that has no supporting evidence. Cancer results from genetic mutations and the frequency produced by cell phones does not damage genes.
  • Do power lines cause cancer? No.
  • Do antiperspirants or deodorants cause breast cancer? No.
  • Does hair dye cause cancer? No. At least not for the end user. Professional hair stylists and barbers who are regularly exposed to large quantities of these chemicals may end up with an increased risk for bladder cancer.

It can be difficult to know what is true and what is not, especially at a time when we are being constantly bombarded with massive amounts of information. Much, if not most, can be ignored. When it comes to decisions regarding your health, however, there is never an excuse for simply believing prevailing opinion. Always do the research necessary to make informed decisions.

If you would like to learn more about biopsies, please watch the following video.

Tips On Transitioning Back to Work After Treatment

When U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Irve Le Moyne finished his cancer treatment at Houston’s MD Anderson Hospital, he rang a brass that he had installed on the way out of the oncology department. He also wrote this poem that hangs near the bell:

Ring this bell
Three times well
Its toll to clearly say

My treatment’s done
This course is run
And I am on my way!

— Irve Le Moyne

Ringing the bell to signify that treatment is over is practiced in hospitals and cancer centers all over the country. It is an emotional moment, filled with great joy, relief and not a small amount of trepidation. Treatment may be over, but, now what? The goal has been to beat the monster and regain the life that has been on hold for months, if not longer. Is that possible? Where do you start?

A major challenge looming on the near horizon is the decision about the right time to go back to work. The vast majority of breast cancer survivors are able to return to their jobs with very little problem. Most of us tell ourselves that work is a necessary evil and that we live for the weekend, but the truth is that our jobs are an important part of our lives, and returning to work is a positive stage of recovery. It will immediately give you a sense of normality and of being, once again, more in control of your life, something that has been missing since that day you were diagnosed.

There is a flip side, however. Not everyone experiences the same treatment for breast cancer, but whether yours included chemotherapy, radiation, surgery or all of the above, it has taken a major toll, physically, mentally and emotionally. You may be experiencing side effects, like hair loss or chemo brain, which is a form of cognitive impairment that affects thinking and memory and makes it hard to focus. In almost everyone, energy levels are usually affected to some degree.

Manage Expectations – Yours and Everyone Else’s

The number one, most important thing that you can do to make transitioning back to work a positive experience is to anticipate and manage expectations. This includes your expectations, as well as those of your boss, co-workers, friends and family.

According to Mary McCabe, RN, director of the Cancer Survivorship program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, “Everyone’s ready for treatment to be over, not just you, and although they’ve been supportive, your friends and family may be expecting you to spring back right away. It’s an education process. They need to understand that when the therapy stops, that doesn’t mean that the effects of the therapy stop immediately.”

Even though you would no doubt prefer to simply dive back in at the same level as when you left, it will be up to you to make sure that everyone understands treatment may be over but it’s going to take some time for you to be back to your old self. Transitioning means just that; gradually reclaiming the long hours, extra duties and activities.

Expect varied reactions from your co-workers. Some will want to throw a party and others may be uncomfortable for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with you. Allow them their reactions and keep in mind that what you share or choose not to share is totally up to you.

There will be other decisions to make about returning to work. You will need to honestly assess your stamina and whether you can return full time or should inquire about gradually increasing hours. There might even be the possibility of doing some work from home. Employers are not required to lower standards to accommodate an employee but they do have to offer reasonable accommodations like restructuring, offering part-time or modified work schedules and certain others that might make life a little easier for now.

Above all else, never lose sight of the fact that, while returning to work is a goal, your priority is your return to health.

How to Give a Self-Breast Exam

Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important.” Johns Hopkins Medical Center

When you hear a new noise while driving down the road or feel even the slightest vibration that wasn’t there the last time, you know there is something going on with your car. We spend so much time in our vehicles that they feel like an extension of our bodies, and we can feel when something is different. The sad thing is that this is often truer with our cars than when there is actually something wrong in our own bodies. Sad is perhaps not the best word choice; perilous or at risk might be better.

This analogy is especially appropriate when we are talking about breast cancer. Every year, the nation turns pink in October and there are pink ribbons everywhere reminding us about being aware of the importance of early detection. The first step in that process is not filling out forms in the doctor’s waiting area: it is learning how your breasts normally look and feel. In order to be able to notice any changes that might indicate a problem, you must first learn breast self-awareness.

One of the best ways to become tuned in to the normal shape and look of your breasts is to practice doing a self-breast exam. Most healthcare professionals recommend doing this self-exam once a month. Try to do it close to the same time each month. Hormonal cycles affect the breasts, so for women who are premenopausal, it is better to do the medical exam at the end of the menstrual cycle. Postmenopausal women can simply pick a day to consistently do the exam each month.

Self-Breast Exam Steps

Self-breast exams should be repeated in different positions on the same day.                    

  • In the Shower – examine each breast, one at a time, by moving the pads of your finger in a circular motion around the breast and armpit. Start at the outside of the breast and move to the center. Feel for lumps, thickening of tissue or anything that feels like a knot. Be aware of any changes from the previous month.
  • In Front of a Mirror – start with arms at your side and visually inspect your breasts. Then, raise both arms overhead and look for changes in shape, swelling, dimpling or changes in nipple color or shape. Rest palms on hips and press to flex chest muscles, once again looking for dimpling, puckering or changes. Most women do not have exactly the same size or shape for both breasts so only look for changes.
  • Lying Down – lying down allows the breast tissue to spread out evenly along the chest wall. With a pillow under your right shoulder, place your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand in small circular motions, gently examine your right breast and armpit. Using light, medium and then firm pressure, squeeze the nipple and check for discharge and lumps. Repeat this process for the left breast.

If you notice any of following during your self-exam, make an appointment to consult with your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Discharge
  • Unexplained change in size or shape
  • Dimpling or puckering
  • Lump
  • Tender areas
  • Redness or warmth
  • Itchy, scaly skin

Become familiar with your breasts so that you can be your own early warning system. Remember, however, self-exams are not able to detect tumors as small as those found with a mammogram. Your best bet is monthly self-breast exams combined with yearly visits to your doctor for mammogram screening.

For more information please watch this video: