Even though I highlighted the reduced risk of breast cancer for breastfeeding women, it remains important for every woman to be proactive about her health. Thus, my series of posts related to Breast Cancer Awareness Month continues with a discussion of breast-self exams for breastfeeding women.
As always, consult your doctor with respect to medical issues. This disclaimer is particularly important with respect to breast health, given both the seriousness of breast cancer and the current debate over the merit of breast self-exams. While traditionally the recommendation has been for monthly breast self-exams starting at age 20, recent studies have questioned whether breast self-exams reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer. Consequently, the American Cancer Society has changed its recommendation to state that breast self-exams are merely an option available to women, and that the exams have benefits as well as limitations.
If a woman chooses to perform a self-exam, it should be performed when her breasts are not tender or swollen. For most women that means the exam should be performed three to seven days after a woman’s menstrual period has ended. For lactating women (who may or may not have a menstrual cycle) it also means that the exam should be performed after a nursing session when the breasts are least full of milk.
While a lump in the breast is the most common sign of breast cancer, it’s important to keep in mind that there are many other potential causes for breast lumps such as fibrocystic changes, trauma or calcifications (making it all the more important to have any breast changes or warning signs evaluated by a doctor). For lactating women, there are two additional potential causes for breast lumps: mastitis or milk cysts. Mastitis is a breast infection that if not treated properly can turn into an abscess. Milk cysts, also known as galactoceles, are sacs filled with milk.
Ultimately the question of whether to perform a breast self-exam is left up to the individual woman. The goal is for a woman to be familiar with how her breasts normally look and feel so that she may seek medical advice upon noticing any changes.