Even in the very early stages, when we first begin our inducing routines, lactation can make it a bit difficult–but not impossible–to perform a breast self-exam or detect unusual lumps and bumps in our breasts. This is because the tissue and ducts change frequently during the lactation process and the breasts can take on an irregular form, altering our “normal”.
To avoid tenderness or the benign fibrocystic changes your breasts go through during your period, you should perform a monthly breast self-exam one week after menstruation. If your period is irregular, or you no longer menstruate, it is recommended that you perform self-examinations twice a month. Although a lactating woman’s milk ducts are never completely void, do your best to empty your breasts by nursing or expressing from both sides prior to your self-exam, which will alleviate tenderness and allow you to check the underlying breast tissue more thoroughly.
To perform your breast self-exam, lie flat on your back with your right hand behind your head. Using the pads of three fingers on your left hand, begin to massage your right breast in an up and down pattern, using small, overlapping circular motions, applying light pressure to examine the surface of the breast and harder pressure to feel deeper tissue. Be sure to check your entire breast, including the areola and nipple, and then move your fingers from your underarm to your sternum, and then from your collarbone to your lower ribs. When you’ve finished examining the entire breast area, switch sides and perform the same exam on your left breast.
It really isn’t uncommon for a lactating woman to feel a lump while performing a breast self-exam, and, generally, the cause of this is a clogged milk duct. A tender red lump can be a sign of mastitis. Both of these nursing maladies can often be treated at home with frequent nursings and pumpings and a heating pad, but if the problem persists after 24 hours, it’s best to consult a qualified health care professional about your condition so he or she can provide you with a treatment plan.
It can be scary to detect a hard, painless lump that persists even after nursing or breast expression, and while there can be benign underlying causes (such as fibrocystic changes, trauma, or calcifications) for them, it is very important that you contact your doctor as soon as possible so he or she can determine what is happening–and how to treat your condition.
While breast self-exams are important, they are not a 100% reliable or effective means of detecting and diagnosing breast cancer, particularly during lactation. All women over the age of 20 should have a clinical breast exam every three years, and women over 40 (or those at high risk) should see their doctor once a year to ensure good breast health!
Through education, awareness, early detection, proper screenings, and improved treatment plans, we can help put an end to breast cancer.
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