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Exclusive: Breast Cancer Surgeon Wants Breast Checks Taught In Schools

One of Australia’s top breast cancer surgeons wants to see breast checks taught in schools across the country, to better prepare young women to spot the disease.

Dr Sanjay Warrier is the president of the council of Australia's breast surgeons.

This month he is launching a national campaign to "empower" women to start breast checks for cancer at an earlier age.

Using the slogan 'Look, Lift, Feel', Warrier hopes the campaign will have as strong of an impact as 'Slip, Slop, Slap' has done for skin cancer prevention.

That popular public health campaign was recently found to have contributed to a reduction in melanoma among young Australians. 

"It's a little bit like brushing your teeth -- we learn how to do it early, and just like 'Slip, Slop, Slap', it becomes ingrained in our everyday lives," Warrier told 10 daily.

"I think it's all about finding the right time to teach young women how to assess their breasts appropriately, and that should start in high school."

The campaign aims to encourage women to check their breasts, using three steps. Image: Getty

While the breast surgeon's campaign is in early stages, Warrier hopes it will one day be part of the Australian school curriculum.

"That could be through educational videos showing students how to undertake a breast check, and what changes to look out for overtime," he said.

A spokesman for Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said state, territory and non-government education leaders are responsible for delivering the curriculum, so it's unclear whether the breast check campaign is something that will be adopted nationally.

READ MORE: Turns Out 'Slip, Slop, Slap' Saved A Bunch Of Lives

'Look, Lift, Feel' is the first known campaign using simple messaging to target young women, who Warrier said are not immune to developing the disease.

"We're doing well in Australia, but that doesn't mean we can do better. We're trying to capture the group for which I believe we don't really have an approach," he said.

"My real hope is that with time, we do see a difference in detection among women who might present late because they think they can't get breast cancer before 40," - Dr Sanjay Warrier, Australian breast cancer surgeon

Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australian women and will account for approximately 29 percent of all new cancers in 2019.

The Breast Cancer Network Alliance (BCNA), an organisation that supports Australian families who are affected by the disease, estimates that figure is approximately 19,535 Australians (including 164 men).

Each year, about five percent of diagnoses will occur in women under 40, according to the Cancer Council.

But Warrier said this small number of cases should not be overlooked.

Dr Sanjay Warrier is spearheading the campaign to get breast checks taught in schools. Image: Supplied

"It is not uncommon, and it is something that we're seeing in our practices," he said.

"The idea isn't to scare young people, but at the same time, it is important to be aware that it is happening," he said.

READ MORE: Feel Yourself: Dense Breasts Increase Chance Of Cancer

When breast cancer is detected early, women have a much greater chance of being treated successfully, the Cancer Council says.

Warrier said this is particularly important for women developing pre-cancerous or cancerous changes at a younger age, and who may ignore typical warning signs.

"Young people can often fall into the trap of thinking they're invincible," he said.

Under Australia's breast screening program, women aged between 50 and 74 can undergo a free mammogram every two years. Women aged 40-49 are also eligible, but are not prompted to do so.

Warrier said breast cancer can be detected from as young as 18, so it was important for young women to be aware of what to look for.

This is why he wants to see it taught in schools, to arm young women with that knowledge as early as possible.

"Anyone from 18 to 20 years old should at least be looking at having an approach in place," he said.

How To 'Look, Lift, Feel' At Home

‘Look, Lift, Feel’ is a simple guide that women can use to check their own breasts. Warrier advises women to check every three months.

This involves a woman looking at her breasts in the mirror, lifting her arm up over her shoulder and checking whether there is a change in size -- particularly if her breasts are asymmetric. 

"Look out for any lumps, particularly in one area rather than on both sides, along with any changes in the skin: thickness, redness or changes around the nipple, " Warrier said.

The next step to feel the breast and armpit in circular motions, along with the nipple.

"If you notice any lumps, what do they feel like -- are they soft and mobile (often the sign of a non-concerning lump) or are they fixed and firm?"

This October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Image: Getty

"Once you notice a change, the next step is to see your GP," he said, adding not all changes are a sign of breast cancer.  

Holly Masters, CEO of breast cancer charity The McGrath Foundation, told 10 daily anyone should understand how their breasts look and feel "regardless of age and also gender".

As the campaign rolls out in the coming months, Warrier hopes it will eventually be supported by governments, corporates, communities and the health system, both in Australia and across the world.

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au