Breast health awareness: get to know your breast friends

Mum was never someone who was shy about her body, especially her breasts. I remember being next to her when my brother was born at home and watching while he was breastfed anywhere. There were always pamphlets and pictures of breastfeeding and breast health throughout the house, as mum became a breast-feeding counsellor for other mums, with the Australian Breastfeeding Association. Breasts were normal; big, small, round, soft, wobbly, firm, all sized and more, a food source for babies. They didn’t stop you doing anything, that's for sure.

Mum was the healthiest person I knew. There was yoga every morning, walking and cycling to work, and always in the waves with us at the beach.The body acceptance mum ingrained in me changed when my own breasts grew, a small hazard I thought at first, I didn't have a baby! Why do I need these? As my D's became Es and more, I became very aware of how much they were noticed but Mum continued to be positive and kind about my new body. Never telling me to hide my breasts or shaming me, she promoted healthy awareness and knowledge of how these changes affected my lifestyle.

Her proactive approach to women’s health and her own took us to visit the family GP when I hit puberty. Mum wanted me to have as much education and authority of my own body, what changes to expect and how to stay healthy when you feel a little top-heavy and nowhere near old enough to be a mum. Everything was normal of course; "get a good fitting bra,” the Dr. said. "Keep healthy, feel for any changes, and get familiar with how they change monthly and as you grow". We talked about my family history, breast cancer on my paternal side, but nothing to worry about until I was at least 30, just "get to know your breasts and notice any changes".

So I fell in love with my healthy young breasts, showing them off when I could, and protecting them when I needed to. I'm still in disbelief mum never said a word about covering them, even a little, on my way out with friends. They became mine and everyone's...yes I will say it...breast friends.

It never in a million years occurred to me that my healthy, vibrant, non-smoker/non-drinker and very "breast aware" mother would have a breast cancer diagnosis less than a year after turning 50.

I returned home from overseas and mum said she had a cancerous lump, almost under her arm, on one of her breasts and was booked for a lumpectomy. It wasn’t serious, she said, they will get it all out and then everything will go back to normal. Sure, ok, well what do I do? I looked up everything I could on breast cancer risks factors. Sure I wasn’t exercising as much as I should but I was vegetarian, I didn't smoke and I was a straight-sized. I drank too much obviously, I was 21, but all in all, I was "normal" and so was mum.

Our family doctor said the same. "It can happen to anyone. We still don't know enough. You won't be eligible for a mammogram until you're over 55". Even then my risk was so low, mum didn’t have the 'genetic type' of breast cancer. "Your mum knew how to check her breasts and she caught it early, that's the key!" I was basically doing everything right. But so was mum I kept thinking. So was mum!

I started feeling my breasts more, taking more notice of my period, diet and energy levels. While studying nursing I focused on others, still, it kept me curious and anxious over why women weren’t encouraged to take pride in the knowledge of our bodies, what is normal for you and why we're not championed to be the expert on our own bodies and health (Thanks patriarchy!)

I wanted to know more about the medical system and why it seemed mum's healthy attitude to body acceptance and awareness seemed to be a bit of an anomaly. My breasts had continued to be "normal", now working at Brava, I saw the extent of what Mum had instilled in me about breasts.
They really are normal in every size, shape and age and nothing to be ashamed of.  But the amount of customers who didn't and don't like their breasts, find them troublesome or just wanted to ignore them was, is and continues to be heartbreaking. If women aren't encouraged to "get to know" our bodies what chance do we have for health awareness, acceptance and seeing signs for early prevention of multiple illness and diseases?

Then Mum's 2nd diagnosis, after aches and pains in her bones became more than just "getting old". The cancer had metastasised as small tumours on her sternum and femur. Non-operational, stage 4. While Mum explored treatment options, I changed studies to Public Health, wanting to learn everything there was about preventative health care and promoting education in health. It was disheartening when talking to friends and family that most of them still didn't know the signs or symptoms of breast cancer and couldn’t do a self-breast check, literally to save their life.

Mum's oncologist recommended she join a drug trial; mum jumping at the opportunity to be included in a study that could lead to more women living longer with late-stage diagnosis. She began to talk more openly about her experiences and the need for more funding and awareness for all women's health issues, especially preventative causes.

The Pink Meets Teal community was starting out and raising awareness for ovarian cancer, which is harder to detect and receives far less coverage. A huge discussion around all women's health issues and the necessity to talk about it had begun. Almost immediately after starting the trial, mum began to feel stronger and was in less pain. We didn't know how long it would last, some people had a few months, others a year or two. Mum threw herself back into everything she loved, started teaching again, travelling, singing and playing in choirs, cooking and sewing.
We both became obsessed with preventative healthcare and talking to anyone that would listen about body changes, health care insight and education. Many friends and family members were uncomfortable with the openness we now had, about the inevitable, but Mum continued to focus on what she knew was important.

My 30th year rolled around, mum danced till the early morning with us, friends saying how healthy she looked, unable to believe she had cancer, slowing growing throughout her body. It was time for me to really get serious about my own health. I had already dealt with the health system multiple times, dealing with endometriosis and mental health support so I was used to being dismissed and treated like I didn't know my own body.
I found an exceptional female GP, Dr. W, who went through every inch of my medical history, reinforcing and encouraging my interest in public health and validating my previous experiences while encouraging me to continue asking questions. When I told her my mum's situation she calmly explained my options.

All women, over 50 years old are encouraged to have mammograms every 2 years, these are free through Breast screen Australia (thank you Australian Health care system!).75% of Breast cancer diagnosis occurs over the age of 50 in Australia. Under 40 years, mammograms are less reliable, due to the density of the breast tissue. Dr W, explained now that I was 30, a breast ultrasound was more appropriate. BUT she explained, the best way to keep healthy and stay on top of any ill health was to learn and notice your own body's normal. That is your biggest chance of survival.

We went over doing a manual breast check, something I had slacked off with. Dr W, slowly moving her hands across my chest, back under my arm, as I lifted it up, across and around my nipples and along with my bones. "Think of it as a compass," she said, "North to South, East to West, arms up and down, double-check and compare the pair". This was the first time I had been confronted with the reality of how much I could and SHOULD do to increase my chances of surviving breast cancer. I was given a referral to an ultrasound clinic, free, due to my family history and off I went.

At a standard imaging clinic, I was given a disposable gown and told to take off my top and bra and lie on the exam table when I was ready.
I took an obligatory Insta photo in the mirror, never one to shy away from "getting them out". Always in the hope, someone I know is reminded to take a minute to think about their own health, mental and physical, especially encouraging more self-breast checks. Lying down, breasts up, the cold slimy gel was applied to one breast at a time, the other covered. Not much talking, just lots of clicking on the computer screen. I asked if I could have the screen turned so I could watch, I think it was the first time this had been asked, why wouldn't I want to have a look what was going on in there? They're my breasts mate, I'm still attached to them. I was given a small towel to wipe the gel off once all the images had been taken. I had one copy and my GP would get the other after the radiologist did her report. I was nervous, of course, who isn't when you're waiting for results? 

I had already booked a return appointment with Dr W. She was straight to the point, "everything looks normal but I'll go through the images with you". Some weird looking streaks and bubbly things were across the shape of my breasts, on screen. Dividing each image into quarters, Dr W explained the natural hormonal lumps I'd worried about. "They were nothing to worry about, they are perfectly normal but this is a good baseline to start from. We can do annual ultrasounds until you feel anything change". I spoke to mum, she wasn't shocked of course but I could hear the relief in her voice when I told her Dr W had my back (and breasts) and will send me for ultrasounds every year until I need a mammogram. 

I know her relief wasn't just that I didn't have breast cancer, but that I had taken control of my own health story. I knew the way forward, had a supportive health care provider and was confident in recognising what was my "normal". Mum didn't have to remind me to follow up this or that and my doctor wasn't second-guessing my own bodily autonomy and experience, but encouraging my curiosity and concern, with legitimate options and choices. 

Most of my friends have had negative experiences when raising their concerns to a medical professional. Being dismissed and made to feel like you're imagining pain or changes in their own body is at best rude and worst, dangerous. You are living in this amazingly intelligent being, only you know what is normal and not. Every curve and nerve tells us something. Do not ignore it. It is your closest friend and will alert you when something needs attention. 

We are delighted to collaborate with the National Breast Cancer Foundation to help support the cure and raise awareness of Breast Cancer in Australia. For every reusable shopping bag sold instore or online at Brava $2 is donated to the NBCF to help their goal of achieving zero deaths by 2030. 

For more information about breast cancer detection and awareness, visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

Bianca has been fitting bras for over 8 years and loving lingerie for even longer. Bianca's passion for women's health and self-confidence make her one of our fitters who cares immensely about helping each and every customer with a lot of laughs and plenty of fun. With a background in Nursing and Public Health, Bianca believes a good fitting and comfortable bra is essential when getting on with living life to the fullest.