Looking after your breasts

by Liz Mc Keon, Nursing Lecturer, Dublin City University

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Breast cancer is considered to be one of the most common cancers to affect females. According to Davies and Duff (2001), women who have never given birth have a statistically higher risk of developing breast cancer. Women with an intellectual disability are living longer and in the main do not have children and are therefore considered more at risk of developing breast cancer. Davies and Duff (2001) propose that more information should be provided for women with an intellectual disability and their carers on how to access existing services and what to expect when they do. In this issue I will look at what you and your carers can do to support yourself in looking after your breasts. I will highlight some examples of literature and training material designed specifically in easy-to.read format for people with an intellectual disability.

It is very important that we look after ourselves and keep healthy. We need to look after all parts of our body—head, heart, arms, legs, tummy and breast. We can do this by eating well, resting, exercising and keeping a regular check on our bodies.

A good time to check your body could be when you are having your shower or bath. You should check your breasts regularly and become familiar with their shape and size. This way you will become aware of any changes that might occur. It is very important that you let your carer or family member know about changes so that you will be looked after immediately. If you notice something different about your body—such as a rash, a lump or soreness that was not there before—you should let your carer or a family member know. Your breasts may feel full and tender just prior to your monthly periods, in which case it is better to check yourself during or after your period.

Breast awareness should be part of your overall body awareness. If you are familiar with your breast now, then you will be more aware of any changes that may occur and this will be your prompt to seek help without delay. There may be many reasons for changes to occur and these may be harmless, but they need to be checked in case there is a small chance that they could be the first sign of cancer. Remember the sooner this is reported the sooner treatment can begin.

Attending a BreastCheck clinic is very important when you reach 50 years of age. This free service is funded by the government. Breast screening is an important way of checking for breast cancer. Health screening programmes are an important way to detect unmet needs (Cooper et al. 2006). However it is suggested that accessing these services for people with an intellectual disability entails overcoming quite a few barriers, and the need for tailormade clinics should be considered. For whatever reason you need to have your breasts screened, here is some information that you may want to know about having a mammogram breast screening.

You can decide if you want to go for breast screening by looking at the information in a booklet explaining more about screening. Booklets are available online at www.breastcheck.ie.

Consider who you want to come along with you (family / carer) and check that the appointment date suits you. Arrange with the clinic if you need any additional help—climbing stairs, waiting in a queue or reassurance. You will need to take your top and bra off for the examination, so wear something comfortable and easy to remove. When you go to the clinic you may have to wait a while, so be prepared for this. When it is your turn you will be asked to get changed in a dressing room. This will mean taking off your top and bra and then having your mammogram. Your carer / family will not be able to go with you, but the staff at the clinic will be able to look after you.

A mammogram is the name for an x-ray (film photo) of your breasts. This is done to look for signs of disease in your breasts. An x-ray plate will be placed on top of your breast to take the picture. This may feel cold or a little uncomfortable, but it should not hurt. The radiographer will take two pictures of each breast, you have to try to stay very still so that the pictures will be very clear.

When the x-rays are taken, usually two of each breast, you will be asked to wait in the changing room until they are checked, to be sure the pictures are clear. You will then be told to get dressed and you can go home with your carer/family. You will not be given results that day, as the x-rays will need to be very carefully examined. You will be sent a letter with your results a couple of weeks after your appointment. Most women are found to be healthy, but if you need further tests you will receive a letter telling you about it.
BreastCheck is a national screening service in Ireland that provides free breast cancer screening services for women aged between 50 and 64 on an area-by-area basis. BreastCheck has developed a detailed information booklet aimed at women with an intellectual disability and/or carers entitled A Guide to Breast Screening. found at www.breastcheck.ie

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