Sarah Stacey's Health Notes: Check your breasts, says Liz Hurley

Screenshot 2019-10-08 at 10.19.12.png

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, symbolised by wearing a pink ribbon, and the UK focus this year is on self-checks

Last week in London, a bevy of beauty editors joined experts at Estée Lauder headquarters for the launch of the company’s Breast Cancer Campaign 2019. It was presented by Liz Hurley, who’s the long-time Global Ambassador for the campaign and passionately involved at all levels.

Liz was joined by GP Dr Zoe Williams, breast cancer survivor Lauren Mahon, founder of Girl vs Cancer, plus writer Emma Guns, who hosted a live edition of her podcast,  ‘The Emma Guns Show’, from the event. It’s stuffed with information and you can watch it here.

Here’s the thing: although breast cancer is the most common type in the UK, with one woman diagnosed with the disease every ten minutes, one in five women under 40 have never checked their breasts for signs of breast cancer. And the proportion goes down as the age goes up, according to a new survey for Estée Lauder.

The under-40 bit is important because breast cancer tends to be more aggressive in younger women. However, mammography is not available until the age of 50 in the UK (40 in the US) as breast tissue is too dense for lumps to show up.

There has been long running controversy over mammograms in the UK and other countries mainly because of the comparatively high rate of false positives leading to unnecessary treatment, and also some false negatives. Research has shown that regular self-checks lead to women consulting their doctors and earlier diagnosis.  For those who do have regular mammograms, it’s still worth self-checking as mammograms are only offered every three years in the UK (every 12 months in women who have a positive family history).

So it’s important for women of all ages to check their breasts every month. Even though it’s scary, possibly embarrassing and you don't really know how to do it or what to look for…

Liz Hurley, whose grandmother died in 1992 – the year Evelyn Lauder launched this campaign, is passionate about spreading the word. ‘We need to work together to ensure we’re educating each other about the importance of self-checking so breast cancer can be caught earlier to improve survival. It’s important to try to talk to your mother, sister, daughter, aunt, friend and ask them whether they regularly check their breasts.’ 

And it’s not just women. Although it’s rare, about one in 100 cases of breast cancer is found in men, mostly aged between 60 and 70. Beyoncé’s father, Mathew Knowles, recently revealed his diagnosis of breast cancer and is now going through treatment. (The symptom that took him to the doctor was bleeding nipples.) So it’s important for them to ‘coppafeel’ too. Visit Cancer Research UK for more information, including symptoms, here.

Then we come to how, when, what? As Liz Hurley mentioned during the panel discussion, it’s best to check your breasts at the same time every month due to hormonal changes. It doesn't really matter at what point – ‘just start feeling your breasts,’ says Dr. Zoe Williams, who demonstrates how to self-check live on her Instagram feed @drzoewilliams.

Estée Lauder also has a helpful leaflet showing you how to check your breasts; find it here.

Laura Mahon, now two years clear of breast cancer, recommended the Coppafeel website, which is dedicated to ‘getting to know your boobs’ and gives clear information, including what to expect if you visit your GP.

Here are the key signs to look for, according to Coppafeel:

• Changes in skin texture, e.g. puckering or dimpling

• Swelling in your armpit or around your collarbone

• Sudden unusual change in size or shape of your breasts

• Nipple discharge

• Nipple inversion and/or changes in direction

• A rash or crusting of the nipple or surrounding area

 Feel for:

 • Lumps and/or thickening

Be aware of:

• Constant unusual pain in your breast or armpit

Remember that in nine cases out of 10 the underlying cause will not be breast cancer. But, as Dr Zoe Williams emphasised, it is really, really important to see your doctor if you are worried.  You will feel better whatever the outcome because you know what is going on with your body.