Breast Self-Exams when breast feeding

October is breast cancer awareness month in Australia. If you are a woman 20 years or older, it is recommended that that you get into the habit of doing a self-breast examination once a month. This helps you familiarize yourself how your breasts feel and look. Examining yourself several days after your period,w hen your breasts are less likely to be tender and sensitive can make it a more comfortab e experience.

This habit should continue when you start breastfeeding, as your breasts will go through significant changes throughout your pregnancy and lactation. This familiarization will help you identify any changes early. You will experience an enormous change in hormones during your pregnancy, resulting with your breasts getting larger, lumpy and generally feel ‘doughier’. Your breasts may double in weight and the blood flow to the area increases by 180%. In this time of dramatic change, it is important to do your monthly self-breast exam. Paying attention to any specific lumps, reddened, inflamed areas or firm areas. If these issues do not resolve within a few days, please talk to your healthcare provider.

The good news is that research shows breastfeeding lowers your risk of developing breast cancer, particularly if you have your children at a young age. It has also shown the longer you breastfeed the more the risk of developing breast cancer is reduced. It is not exactly clear why this happens. There are two theories, one theory is that lactation delays the start of post-natal menstruation, reducing exposure to estrogen, which has been linked to increased risk of breast cancer. The other is, breastfeeding gets rid of any genetically damaged breast cells, that are more likely to become cancerous.

There are different ways to carry out a breast self-exam, including in the shower, standing in front of a mirror or laying down. A suggestion for the breastfeeding mum, is to lay flat on your back, making sure you have a cloth handy for any milk leakage. Once you are flat on your back place your right hand behind your head and then use your three middle fingers of your left hand to palpate your I breast. Use small overlapping circular motions to cover your entire breast next use an up-and-down motion, varying the pressure, from light, to feel closer to the surface and harder to feel deeper into the tissue. Ensure you cover the entire breast, include, from under your arm to your sternum and from your collarbone to your lower ribs.

It is important not to jump to the worst conclusion if you find a lump in your breast, there are many reasons why a breastfeeding mother may encounter lumps. Engorgement is one of the most common causes for lumps in a breast-feeding mother and is a result of your baby being too young or unable to feed effectively, resulting in your breast being too full. This can be easily resolved with regular feeding and or pumping. Blocked or plugged milk ducts are usually small hard and tender modules and can show up suddenly and normally do not require any treatment. Mastitis is a painful breast infection, normally a warm, reddish area and be accompanied by a fever. Antibiotics may need to be used to treat this infection. A cyst is a round or oval lump that contains a collection of fluid. This lump is hard, smooth and can be easily moved around inside your breast. Normally cysts do not cause any problems, however some cysts may need to be removed. Fibro cystic breasts may become tender and feel like multiple hard modules in the breasts, these are not normally cancerous. Lipomas is a noncancerous fatty mass that grows slowly, often being soft and do not cause pain. Lastly any trauma to the breast that may result in a hematoma will cause discoloration and pain.

There are things that you can do if you find a lump in your breast. Firstly, don’t panic and continue to breastfeed, ensuring that you have correct attachment, this allows your baby to get enough breastmilk and decreases the chance of trauma. It can help prevent or resolve engorgement or blocked milk ducts. Using a breast pump after you've breastfed will help ensure your breasts are fully drained, this may also dislodge or remove any clots. Applying a moist warm cloth to the area around  the lump may offer some relief, as well as avoiding tightfitting clothes and bras that could put pressure on the area. Keep an eye on the area and if it worsens you develop a temperature or your worried in any way please contact your healthcare professional.

If you are concerned with your breasts or breastfeeding contact your health professional as soon as possible.

Ameda (Contributing Blog Content)
Explore Parents
Breast Cancer Network Australia

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