Women's Health Matters

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The most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A lump that is painless, hard and has irregular edges is more likely to be cancer. Some cancers can be tender, soft and rounded; so it's important to have all new lumps checked by your doctor.

Other warning signs include persistent breast changes such as:

  • a thickening or lump in the breast
  • dimpling or pulling of the skin
  • any changes in breast shape or contour
  • discharge from the nipples, other than breast milk
  • a retraction, redness or scaliness of the nipple that does not go away
  • pain or tenderness in the breast
  • a change in texture
  • a change in size
  • itchiness, inflammation or hot-feeling skin

These are usually caused by benign conditions but is occasionally a warning sign of breast cancer.

How Is Breast Cancer Found?

Chances for successful treatment are better the earlier breast cancer is detected. Early breast cancer does not usually produce symptoms, so it's important for women to follow the guidelines outlined in the following section.

Methods of early detection:

There are several ways to help a woman find breast cancer early in the disease. These include:

Breast self-examination
This is an exam in which you feel for any changes in the breast. While breast self-examination (BSE) helps you learn what is normal for your breasts so that you will notice changes, mammography and clinical breast examinations are the most reliable methods of finding breast cancer, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. Women who do BSE should do this examination monthly.

Clinical breast exam
This is an exam performed by a health care professional to feel for any changes in the breast. Women should have a clinical breast exam at least every two years if over the age of 40.

A mammogram is a low dose x-ray of the breast which can find small breast cancer lumps or precancerous changes in the breast. These lumps may be so small a woman can't feel them with her fingers.

A screening mammogram is used to look for breast disease in women who have no breast concerns. A diagnostic mammogram is used when a woman has symptoms or if there are other barriers to accurate testing like breast implants.

The Canadian Cancer Society recommends the following guidelines:

Have a mammogram every two years if you are between the ages of 50 and 69. If you are between the ages of 40 and 49, discuss your risk of breast cancer and the benefits and risks of mammography with your doctor. If you are over 70, talk to your doctor about a screening program for you.

In certain circumstances, (for example, if a woman has breast implants) a diagnostic mammogram may also be used instead of a screening mammogram. For most women, the x-rays will show no signs of a problem.

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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital