We likely all know someone who has been impacted by breast cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer. It’s estimated that 1 in 8 Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their life. With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month in Canada, we wanted to take some time to share helpful information on what to know about signs and symptoms of breast cancer.

Knowledge is power and when it comes to our health that’s especially true. Knowing our baseline of health, family history, and risk factors are important to helping us understand when things might feel off. It can be hard to face this knowledge at times; the possibilities can feel overwhelming and sometimes scary. But at the same time, having that knowledge also helps us move past the wondering and into a place where we are armed with information we need to move forward and act.

Facts about Breast Cancer

Let’s take a moment first to cover some facts about breast cancer. In 2022, it’s estimated that 28,600 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. It will represent about 25% of all new cancers this year.

The causes of breast cancer are not known, but there are risk factors. A risk factor is something that increases your chance of developing a disease. Family history is a significant risk factor that many people will consider when assessing their risks. Other risks are ones you have more control over, such as alcohol consumption or smoking. However, just because you have a risk factor doesn’t mean you’ll develop breast cancer.

Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Like many illnesses, the signs and symptoms of breast cancer might not always make themselves obvious, especially in earlier stages. That’s why it’s important to know your body and your health. When things start to feel off, that’s your sign it might be time to talk to your doctor.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, signs and symptoms of breast cancer can appear when a cancerous tumor becomes large enough to detect by touch as a lump in the breast. As an early symptom of breast cancer, these lumps can feel like they’re part of the surrounding tissue and might be tender but not always. Lumps can also form near your armpit as well. Other things to watch out for visually include any changes to your breasts or nipples like shape or size.

If breast cancer starts to spread to other areas of the body then there will be symptoms that indicate a late progression. These include bone pain, weight loss, nausea, lack of appetite, shortness of breath, cough, headache, double visions and muscle weakness.

What you can do

Knowing these signs and symptoms of breast cancer arm us with useful information, but it can also be a scary thing to navigate. This is where it’s important to remember that knowledge helps us act. Here are some things you can do to help yourself navigate your risk of developing breast cancer.

  • Self-screenings - self exams have long been considered a key way to detect breast cancer, but the anxiety of having to do so has been an obstacle for many people. They used to be considered a life-saving habit, but unfortunately it’s not that simple. From detecting non-cancerous lumps to causing anxiety, research has not shown that self-exams decrease mortality from breast cancer. Self-exams are also tricky for individuals with dense breasts because of the change in tissue. The new recommendation is to practice breast self-awareness - be aware of what your breasts look and feel like normally, look out for signs and symptoms, and consider if you have any risk factors or family history to be aware of.
  • Regular doctor visits – self-exams can be difficult for individuals to keep up with, and some might avoid them altogether out of fear. While practicing breast self-awareness is a very useful tool, regular doctor visits and check-ups, especially clinical physical exams by your doctor can also help catch lumps that need further investigation.
  • Mammograms and breast density measuring - anything found during a self-exam or at the doctor’s office will likely require additional imaging. Mammograms are considered the gold standard of test screening - if something concerning is found, a mammogram is used to indicate what needs to happen next. Tests can also be done for breast density, to help a doctor and patient understand what areas of breast tissue are especially dense and potentially in need of further investigation.

The Canadian Cancer Society recommends a mammogram for women over the age of fifty every two years, or earlier if there’s a family history of breast cancer.

These facts help us understand the threat and risk factors of breast cancer, and help us take action to monitor our own health effectively.