Breast awareness - the first step to breast health

May 30, 2014
Knowing how your breasts normally look and feel can help you to pick up any suspicious lumps or other changes that may need to be checked out by your health care provider.

"Get to know your breasts," urges Natasha Prodan-Bhalla, a nurse practitioner with the Women's Health Centre at BC Women's Hospital.  "Women need to know their own bodies, know when things have changed."

Getting to know your breasts

When seeing patients in the clinic, Prodan-Bhalla uses a breast exam as a conversation starter about breast awareness.  She advises women to get to know their own breasts so that they can detect pain, lumps, nipple discharge or other changes that may indicate disease.  Prodan-Bhalla also encourages women to involve their partner in this process.  Ideally, learning what's normal should begin as early as adolescence, when the young woman has her first period.

As well as being breast self-aware,  the BC Cancer Agency's Screening Mammography Program recommends that women have regular health checkups and discuss with their health care provider whether a clinical breast exam (carried out by your healthcare provider) is right for them.
Your personal breast cancer risk

Part of breast awareness is knowing your family history of breast cancer. However, it's important to keep in mind that only about five to 10 per cent of breast cancers are hereditary. Other elements that influence your breast cancer risk include the age when you had your first period. Although you cannot change some of these risk factors, as many as 42 per cent of breast cancers are linked to lifestyle factors that you do have the potential to change. All contribute to your personal risk of developing breast cancer. 

Family history

In general, you are at increased risk of developing breast cancer if one or more first-degree relatives (such as a mother, sister or daughter) had breast cancer, especially if they were diagnosed before menopause.  In some cases, inherited genetic problems can significantly increase a women's lifetime risk of developing breast cancer.  If you know that your mother, sister or daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer, the best approach is to discuss the specifics with your health care provider.  This will influence the advice that she can give you about breast cancer screening. In addition, she can help you decide if genetic tests are needed.  

Staying healthy

Although some breast cancer risk factors are outside your control, there are lifestyle changes that you can make to help keep your breast healthy and minimize your chance of developing breast cancer.

Eating well, keeping your weight within normal limits, exercising regularly and limiting the alcohol that you drink are healthy habits on many different counts. These are also effective to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.  The Screening Mammography Program has more information.

Breast cancer screening

The Screening Mammography Program provides free screening mammograms for  women age 40 and up.  They now recommend that women between the ages of 40 and 49 and women of 75 or older discuss screening mammography with their doctors or other healthcare providers. A referral to get a screening mammogram is only required for women under age 40 who need to start screening at a younger age because they are known to be at high risk of developing breast cancer.

Your healthcare provider

Finally, Prodan-Bhalla advises women to have an open relationship with their primary healthcare provider, whether that's a family doctor or nurse practitioner, and be sure to ask questions about your own body. "When you have that relationship, sometimes the random questions that come up can be very important."


BC Women's Breast Health Services
Mammography Program of BC
Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment Clinic
Cancer Society


This article was written by Anne McLaughlin and reviewed by Natasha Prodan-Bhalla, a BC Women's nurse practitioner who sees women of all ages and social backgrounds in her role as a nurse practitioner at primary care community health clinics provided on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a partnership between BC Women's and the Vancouver Women's Health Collective.

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