Important Conversations about Cancer

With some people we make conversation, with others we question ourselves, the systems and come away with a new understanding. My Sunday evening was spent with a friend from Cork discussing everything from what we did that weekend to how a self-breast check is performed. As we threw around ideas for our final year projects, she out of the blue asked me the question:

“Do you know how to check your breasts?”

I felt embarrassed, but I didn’t know. I had never been shown how and it never even occurred to me to find out. She explained it to me, and I know that conversation will be one of the most valuable I will ever have. I brought it up with a few of my friends afterwards, each of them having no idea how to do it. Before starting to write this piece, I wasn’t aware that October was breast cancer awareness month, which makes the conversation all the more timely.

There are a lot of resources online that explain how to properly perform a breast check on yourself. I was lucky enough to have my friend explain it to me. She told me to feel around for a hard spot and look for anything unusual and also told me to make sure that I wasn’t feeling my rib when checking the lower part of my breast. I felt ashamed for not knowing how to check properly, yet she assured me that I’m not the only one. This is the first time I have ever had this conversation and I have had it with other friends since, each of whom were similar to me in that they had never even thought about checking their breasts.

As a 21 year old in Ireland, I won't be called for my first breast check for another 29 years at the earliest. The first check takes place between the ages of 50-52. Until then, it’s up to all of us to notice the first signs of breast cancer.

The Marie Keating Foundation recommends that women check their breasts at least once per month, about a week after the end of your period or on the same day every month if you are menopausal. To look for changes, stand in front of the mirror and raise both arms above your head and check for puckering, dimpling, redness of the skin on the breast or veins that stand out more than usual. Notice if any breast has gotten larger or lower. Leaning forward, check the nipple for changes such as the nipple going inwards, crusting, redness, swelling, bleeding, any discharge or change in the direction or shape.

To feel for changes, use your hand to press down on your breast and repeat until you have felt each area of the breast. Here you are feeling for anything unusual such as lumps, thickening or bumpiness that is different from the other breast tissue. This is the part where you need to make sure it's not the rib you’re feeling. Your breast tissue also extends to your armpit, which I did not know so check for anything usual such as swelling and also squeeze the nipple and make sure there is no discharge. The video asks people not to panic if they do find something unusual as most changes in the breast are non-cancerous, however it urges people to visit their GP.

While my conversation with my friend was relaxed, researching how to perform a breast check did put the wind up me. Most of us are not healthcare professionals yet it is up to us to notice the first signs of cancer. Take a few minutes once per month, even before getting into the shower and have a check.

I want to point out that while looking at different resources, I came across many infographics of older people in clinics being checked by professionals. The information is relevant for everybody and, personally, I think checking for breast cancer and testicular cancer should be one for the school curriculum. As a 16 or 17 year old, would I have felt awkward? Absolutely, however I would have listened all the same.

Perhaps it's strange for two girls in their twenties to be talking about breast cancer, but it shouldn’t be. I found myself questioning, why I don’t know this already, if a check doesn’t take place until the age of fifty, why haven't I been shown how to check myself?

We debated these questions, concluding that cancer doesn’t discriminate. I wasn’t expecting our conversation to take this turn, yet I am so happy that it did. I went home that evening and checked my breasts for the first time. Without that first conversation, who knows when I would have checked? It is scary but the sooner you detect, the sooner you can get treatment.

Lads and ladies, look after yourselves. If you don’t know how to check yourself for cancer, there is loads of resources online. I’ll leave some of them below. Of course, don’t forget to pass on the message.

* Gemma Good is from Killeshandra and a fourth year journalism student in University of Limerick


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