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  • Debbie Kerr

Getting to know...your breasts

breathing exercise with hand over one breast

And to be be clear. It’s important to get to know your own breasts.  

Even saying, “Getting to know your own breasts” seems like an odd thing to say. I mean, you’ve been hanging out together most of your life. You’ve always been inseparable, but no one said you were attached at the hip. That would have been awkward.

So why are women told to know their breasts? How are you supposed to do that? Are you supposed to take them out for a coffee or maybe out for dinner? Again, technically, you are already doing that. What more can you do?

Your breasts talk to you

Perhaps getting to know your breasts is not so much about you talking and more about listening to what your breasts are trying to tell you. After all, your breasts will know when there is a problem before you do.

In fact, my left breast tried to tell me there was a problem. I started to have a bloody discharge from my nipple. Even then, I didn’t understand what was being said. I had only ever heard about a lump being a potential sign of breast cancer. In my mind, if there wasn’t a lump, there wasn’t cancer. As weird as this discharge was, I waited a month before I went to see my doctor. I wasn’t scared into action like I would have been if I thought I had cancer.

My breast never gave up. It kept producing that discharge. If the discharge had suddenly stopped, I would have thought the problem was resolved and I would have never gone to see my doctor.

When I saw my doctor and told her my symptom, she did a breast examination and told me that I needed to have some tests. She looked worried and told me I could call her any time I needed to talk. I didn’t understand why I would want to call her to talk. I didn’t know what she was thinking. She hadn’t ever said the word “cancer”. Sometimes humans don’t communicate any more clearly than breasts.

The need for an interpreter

Once my doctor put the test process into motion, it continued for months. I went to multiple hospitals in multiple cities to have my tests. While I’m not sure of exact numbers, I had at least three mammograms, four ultrasounds, two ultrasound-guided biopsies, a fine needle aspiration (FNA), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and an MRI-guided biopsy.  It wasn’t until I had my MRI that my doctor and the radiologist were able to start interpreting what was going on. The surgeon told me that I “lit up like a Christmas tree” and told me I had Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) that covered at least half my left breast.

But wait, my breast had more to say. There was one last test for my doctors to interpret. I had an MRI-guided biopsy, and that’s how my Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) was found. There were several small tumours outside of my breast ducts.

Unhealthy relationship

Although I had known my breasts for years, my left breast had turned on me and not treated me right. It was an unhealthy relationship, so I ended it. After months of tests, I had a mastectomy of my left breast. The night before my surgery, I was surprised at how calm I was about saying good-bye to my breast. While I was attached to it (quite literally), I was not emotionally attached to it.

I was never told that I could have cut ties with both my breasts. I never thought that if one wasn’t treating me right, it was possible that the other one might treat me the same way in the future. Part of me wishes I had been given that option, because I still have communication issues with my right breast, even after 10 years.


A relationship change

Maybe one of the reasons I had trouble communicating with my right breast was because the situation had changed. I don’t know if my remaining breast noticed that the other one was gone or wondered why I was putting chemo into my body to kill any cancer cells…even ones that might be in my right breast. It probably looked like I had turned on my body just like my breast had turned on me.

My remaining breast had also physically changed. While it had always seemed firm (dense), now it felt like parts of it were missing…at least that’s how I described it to some of my friends. With the hormone changes that took place during chemo, so did the composition of my breast. It was totally foreign to me. The whole breast felt like a series of lumps.  It was a cancer patient’s worst nightmare when doing breast self-examinations.

New communication method with good results

And so, like any good relationship worth saving, I tried to find a new way to communicate with my breast. Instead of focussing on looking for lumps during a self-examination, I tried to look for other signs of cancer. Since I had already experienced it, I knew a bloody nipple was a sign, but I also knew that there were may other signs like an inverted nipple, orange-peel-like skin, a raised vein, and heat. I knew from the “Know Your Lemons” campaign that there were at least 12 signs of breast cancer.

Egg carton with 12 lemons in them. Each represents a sign of breast cancer.

Now, by listening/looking at my breasts for signs of a recurrence, I noticed when my nipple started to invert a little. I got a sense that something wasn’t right. My breast was speaking to me. I contacted my doctor, and she ordered a mammogram and ultrasound. Several days later I got called to come back for another type of mammogram and a focussed ultrasound. I was told I needed a biopsy that same day, which is what I expected.

In the end, there were two bright spots to this experience. The first one was discovering that my breast and I were still on speaking terms. The second one was that, in the end, it was a cyst and not a cancerous lump.

Some outside help

Going forward, I’m hoping to hear only good things from my remaining breast. Even though we are on speaking terms, I still recognize that sometimes you need a little help from an outside party.

I have a new doctor. He has no experience with my previously dense breast; he’s starting from scratch. My previous doctor retired. She never felt the thickening (another sign of cancer) that was there in my cancerous breast, so I was not confident that she would find it if my cancer returned. I’m hoping my breast will speak more clearly to my new doctor and, perhaps eventually, to me.

I will continue to have regular mammograms.

Please note: If, on your mammogram, you find out you have dense breasts, ensure you have an ultrasound or MRI. Dense breasts make it more difficult to detect breast cancer using only a mammogram and can result in a later-stage diagnosis than if you had an ultrasound or MRI.  

Why women need to know their breasts

Just like dealing close friends and family, you know the signs when something is up, when something just isn’t right. Knowing your breasts is the same. Learn to know what’s normal for you and then watch for any signs that could indicate breast cancer. Talk to your doctor. Follow your gut feeling. Be your own advocate.

Breast cancer awareness is about being aware of your own body (in this case breasts) so that you know when something is wrong. Always listen. Always act.

Now go for a walk with your breasts. The better the relationship between you and your breasts, the more likely you’ll be able to hear when your body is trying to tell you something.    


Getting to Know You

Breast cancer awareness is about more than raising money. Breast cancer awareness is about being aware of what is normal for your breasts so that you know when something has changed.


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