Breast cancer can strike anyone — even if you’re completely healthy and don’t have a family history of it. But you don’t necessarily have to go to a doctor to do a breast examination — you can also DIY. It really doesn’t matter who carries it out, as long as you get your sisters checked.
When was the last time you paid attention to your boobs, besides slathering body foam on them in the shower? By paying attention, we mean knowing the texture, shape and appearance of your breasts and nipples during different times of the month and at different stages of your life — starting from the age 20.
And this breast self-awareness should continue throughout your lifetime.
When your period is near or if you’re pregnant, for instance, your boobs may feel more sore and tender than usual. If you are breastfeeding, you may encounter small lumps which are usually caused by clogged ducts. After hitting 40, you may notice your breasts start to shrink, soften and become saggier. Abnormal growths like cysts may even appear.
Biologically, breasts exist for the purpose of providing milk as nutrition for babies. To some, they may represent femininity. Arguably, breasts also double up as a sex organ, since they play a role in sexual pleasure.
Apart from these functions, you may not think much about your boobs. After all, they’re covered up most of the time, and breasts don’t typically come up in conversations — other than perhaps, yearly chats with our gynaecologists and Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
But here’s why your breasts deserve more attention and airtime: Every year, more than 2,000 women in Singapore are diagnosed with breast cancer, the leading cause of death for women, according to the National Registry of Diseases Office Singapore, Singapore Cancer Registry 50th Anniversary Monograph 2019. Of those affected, about 20 per cent die from it.
The good news is, breast cancer is very much treatable. The earlier it’s discovered, the better the outcome. Dr Rebecca Dent, head and senior consultant of medical oncology at the National Cancer Centre Singapore, said in a recently published paper Take Charge of Your Breast Health – Journeys of Young Women with Breast Cancer in Singapore: “Access to breast cancer screening and treatment has improved greatly across the years. Now we are much better at identifying which treatment is right for the patient. Targeted therapies have also improved outcomes for both early and advanced breast cancer.”
The key to early discovery? Regular breast checks.
Keep tabs on your breast friends
Yes, we are talking about the breast self-examination (BSE) and mammogram, which has been long advocated by healthcare bodies like the Health Promotion Board and Breast Cancer Foundation, a charity organisation that aims to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease.
Refresher: The BSE is a three-step routine (refer to the illustrations here) that can be done in three minutes, while the mammogram involves compression and an X-ray capture of your breasts to detect tumours and abnormalities. All women aged 20 and above should do their BSE monthly. In addition, those aged 40 to 50 should go for mammograms yearly, while those above 50 should go for mammograms once every two years.
*If you’re keen on applying for one, click here for a step-by-step guide to BSE as well as a form to request for an appointment for a mammogram screening.
If all these sound like a chore, think about it: We spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on lingerie to encase them (think lacy bralettes, confidence-boosting push-up bras, supportive sports bras and the like) every year. In contrast, these breast checks — which are vital to your health and well-being — cost you practically nothing, apart from a couple of minutes. However, according to the Breast Cancer Foundation, two in five women don’t do regular breast checks.
While factors such as family history of diseases can up your breast cancer risk, the truth is that breast cancer can strike anyone at any point in their life. No one is immune to it — even if you lead a relatively healthy lifestyle.
Staphnie Tang, president of Breast Cancer Foundation, highlights: “Breast cancer does not discriminate, regardless of age. Vigilance through regular breast checks is key for early detection.” So, it’s high time these checks earn a spot in your self-care routine.
Okay, so what next?
Short of setting a monthly alarm for a perfunctory boob inspection, you can turn your BSE or mammogram into a way more exciting affair by using these ideas.
#1: Explore your body
Conducting a breast check regularly allows you to detect lumps and other abnormalities ASAP.
With Covid-19 converting us (even the most extroverted) into homebodies, you may already be getting in touch with your body, literally. In that case, working in those three breast self-examination steps will be a cinch. Not hands-on yet? It’s never too late to start.
Studies from the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine have found that physical touch, including self-touch, reduces anxiety and stress, as well as improves immune function and overall well-being, among many benefits. In the process of touching and observing your body, you will gain body awareness and confidence too.
Speaking of awareness, the Breast Cancer Foundation is running a Know Your Breasts social media challenge in October, to encourage everyone — men included — to be more in tune with their breasts and body. Head to its Instagram page (@bcfsg) to find out how to take part and support this cause.
#2: Elevate your chill routine
As busy women, we dedicate time for aromatherapy, DIY facials, massages and long hot showers to unwind. Let breast checks be part of the relaxing me-time, too. With an arm raised overhead, you can easily do the press-and-feel on each boob while using your luxurious body scrub, letting your face mask sit, or tuning in to your favourite podcast. Now, that’s what we call meaningful multitasking.
#3: Bond with your partner
Who says breast checks have to be done yourself? Let your man do the job while you lie back and relax. We bet he will be more than happy to help with this. When done regularly, he may be just as sensitive to changes in your breasts as you are. Chances are, partner-aided breast checks will improve sexual intimacy, the relationship, and your well-being. It’s a triple win.
#4: Go on a women’s health date
Mammograms are often regarded as a pain in the neck (and chest, in this case) because they are usually done in isolation in a clinical setting, and involve a level of discomfort. But guess what? You don’t have to deal with the anxiety alone.
Since mammograms are only done on women, consider asking a gal pal along for company and moral support, whether it’s your BFF, sister or mother. Having someone dear with you at a mammogram appointment, or even go for a mammogram at the same time, will lighten the mood and offer you both quality time together.
Another tip: Sweeten the date by arranging for lunch, high tea or anything pampering after the screening. This mammogram might just be the event you’ll look forward to, year after year.
Support for breast cancer patients and caregivers
If you are affected by breast cancer or know someone who is, take heart. The Breast Cancer Foundation offers various support channels such as these:
BCF Befrienders Programme
Whether you have questions about breast cancer or just need a listening ear, this programme lets you chat with volunteers face-to-face or over the phone. As breast cancer survivors, they understand what you are going through, and can better help you navigate your journey. Call 6356-0123 or WhatsApp 9464-1011.
BCF Support Groups
These groups hold monthly meetings that include sharing sessions and discussions on relevant subjects, from exercise and nutrition to surgery and treatment journey.
Here are some groups you can join:
• Young Women Support Group (for those 45 and below)
• English-speaking Support Group
• Mandarin-speaking Support Group
• Caregivers Support Group (Integrated with Men’s Support League)
Visit www.bcf.org.sg/our-services/#section-support-group for more info.
Mammogram subsidies in Singapore
A mammogram can save your life, so don’t let the cost of screening deter you. Women aged 50 and above are eligible for the following subsidies:
Screen for Life
The Health Promotion Board’s Screen for Life programme offers subsidised mammogram screenings for Singapore citizens ($50), permanent residents ($75) and pioneers ($25) at selected locations.
• Singapore citizen or PR
• 50 years old and above
• Has not gone for a screening mammogram in the last 24 months
• Has no breast symptoms like lumps or blood-stained nipple discharge
• Has not been breastfeeding for the past six months
The Breast Cancer Foundation Encouragement for Active Mammograms (BEAM) offers women free mammograms at polyclinics. BEAM was launched under the guidelines of BreastScreen Singapore, in partnership with the Health Promotion Board, National Healthcare Group Diagnostics, and SingHealth.
• Singapore citizen
• 50 years old and above
• Has not gone for a screening mammogram in the last 24 months
• Has a valid Community Health Assist Scheme card (either blue or orange) and a valid Pioneer Generation card (for those aged 65 and above) or a valid Merdeka Generation card (for those born from January 1, 1950, to December 31, 1959)
Visit www.bcf.org.sg/bse for more info.