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Can regularly checking your breasts save your life?

by Henry Scowcroft | Analysis

1 August 2008

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A study reported in the news this month had the potential to confuse many women about the benefits of checking their breasts for unusual changes.

Researchers from Denmark reported in a Cochrane Library Review that there is no evidence that breast cancer death rates are lower amongst women who regularly check their breasts.

But we know from several studies that it is mostly women themselves who first report symptoms that may later be diagnosed as breast cancer.

Although this may seem contradictory, it isn’t.  The review doesn’t actually tell us anything new – the UK stopped advising a strict routine of breast self-examination back in 1991, and there’s lots of evidence supporting this decision.

For instance, a Japanese study in 2002 of over 260,000 women found that those who practiced routine self-examination were just as likely to die from breast cancer as women who did not examine themselves. Moreover, they concluded that self-examination led to more women having biopsies on non-cancerous (benign) lumps.  And the following year an analysis of 20 studies on breast self-examination drew the same conclusions.

The self-examination procedures that organisations previously promoted were varied and often complex.  For instance, women were recommended to routinely check their breasts on the same day of each month, feeling them using a certain pressure in both standing and lying positions, and viewing their breasts from different angles using a mirror.

Confusingly, this method is still promoted in the US, and some people are concerned that women searching for advice on the internet will be misled into thinking that these techniques are the most beneficial.

But it is vital that this report is not misinterpreted: women should still be checking their breasts.  Based on the work of Cancer Research UK scientists, current advice is that women need to be ‘Breast Aware.’

Breast awareness is a much simpler idea of getting to know what’s normal for your breasts so that you can more easily spot changes, rather than following a rigorous routine.  Every woman’s breasts are different and they can change naturally throughout the month and a person’s lifetime.  The NHS has a leaflet explaining what you should look for.  The five-point code says:

  1. know what is normal for you
  2. look at and feel your breasts
  3. know what changes to look for
  4. report any changes without delay
  5. go for breast screening if you are 50 or over

Most changes to the breast are not caused by cancer.  But ladies! You must report any changes immediately to your doctor, and above all, attend screening sessions if you are 50 or over – the earlier that breast cancer is detected, the more successful treatment is likely to be.  You are certainly not wasting the doctor’s time: it could save your life.