breast cancer ribbonSo. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – the time of year when everything goes pink and moving stories of people’s struggles with the disease fill the glossies.

But aside from the human interest stories, the events and the fundraising, there’s also a very important health message behind BCAM.

Everybody knows detecting breast cancer early is vital. Treating the disease is generally much more successful if the disease is spotted early. That’s why the NHS spends millions of pounds a year on a breast screening programme that saves thousands of lives.

And encouraging women to go for screening is one of the central aims of BCAM, especially in the light of recent reports of low uptake in some parts of the country.

But what about self-examination? Is there anything women should be doing themselves, regularly, to help spot the disease?

For a large part of the 80s and early 90s, the message was clear: a monthly self-examination, using three fingers of one hand, moving in a circular motion, was the approach most cancer charities recommended.

But over the last 10 years the message has slowly changed, and the emphasis has shifted to ‘breast awareness’ rather than performing a regular monthly examination. This was based on research suggesting that rigorous monthly examination had no effect on death rates from breast cancer.

This approach has drawn criticism but the evidence suggests that its the best one. And this week the Canadian Cancer Society changed its advice to de-emphasise the monthly examinations too.

Here’s an excellent summary of the arguments for and against this move

And so its probably worth spelling out again, for posterity’s sake, what the Cancer Research UK advice to women is, and what ‘breast awareness’ means:

  • know what is normal for you
  • look at and feel your breasts
  • know what changes to look for
  • report any changes without delay
  • go for breast screening if you are 50 or over