Breast Cancer Awareness Month is run annually in October globally but there should be greater awareness EVERY month of the year.

As breast cancer is so prevalent in women, Link’s Ryan Conybeare encourages South Africa’s women to improve their awareness of the symptoms, risks that they can influence, and the benefits of early detection.

“This article provides information about breast cancer to create context but we ask that you keep three actions top-of-mind which can save lives: Have regular check-ups with your GP; self-examine your breasts every month, and go for your mammogram. Early detection of breast cancer is so important”.

1. Why you should learn more about breast cancer.
According to the South African Government, breast cancer among South African women is increasing and CANSA reports that about 19.4 million South African women aged 15 years and older are at risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Globally, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) statistics indicate that 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020 with 685 000 women dying.

The South African Government encourages greater awareness of breast cancer as early treatment can result in effective treatment and a positive prognosis.

2. How to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
The Centre for Communicable Diseases (CDC) distinguishes between risk factors that you cannot change, and risk factors that you can influence.

Risk factors that you cannot change include:

  • Getting older. The risk for breast cancer increases with age; most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50.
  • Genetic mutations, where women have inherited genetic changes.
  • Having more connective tissue can make it difficult to see tumours on a mammogram.
  • Personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases.

Some non-cancerous breast diseases such as atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ are also associated with a higher risk of getting breast cancer.

  • Family history of breast or ovarian cancer. A woman’s risk for breast cancer is higher if she has a mother, sister, or daughter (first-degree relative) or multiple family members on either her mother’s or father’s side of the family who have had breast or ovarian cancer. Having a first-degree male relative with breast cancer also raises a woman’s risk.
  • Previous treatment using radiation therapy. Women who have had radiation therapy to the chest or breasts (such as treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma) before the age of 30 have a higher risk of getting breast cancer later in life.

The risk factors that can be managed or influenced are:

  • Not being physically active. This presents a higher risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Being overweight or obese after menopause. Older women who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of getting breast cancer than those of a healthy weight.
  • Taking hormones. Some forms of hormone replacement therapy (those that include both oestrogen and progesterone) taken during menopause can raise risk for breast cancer when taken for more than five years.
  • Certain oral contraceptives (birth control pills) have also been found to raise the risk of breast cancer.
  • Reproductive history. A first pregnancy after age 30, not breastfeeding, and never having a full-term pregnancy can raise breast cancer risk.
  • Drinking alcohol. Studies show that a woman’s risk for breast cancer increases with the more alcohol that she drinks.

Research suggests that other factors such as smoking, being exposed to chemicals that can cause cancer, and changes in other hormones due to night shift working may also increase breast cancer risk.

3. Warning signs of breast cancer

The CDC lists some of the warning signs of breast cancer as:

  • New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
  • Pain in any area of the breast.

While these symptoms should trigger a visit to the GP, they could be associated with other conditions unrelated to cancer. Breasts can change from having your period, having children, gaining or losing weight or through age. It is advisable to consult with your GP.

4. Mammogram
According to Breastcancer.org, detecting breast cancer early greatly improves the chances of a positive prognosis. Women should have a mammogram from the age of 40 or sooner if in a high risk group. Women in the age group 45 – 54 should have a mammogram every year, while those over 55 should have a mammogram every two years, or earlier if advised by their GP.

While self- examining your breast every month (see point 5 below) is essential, this does not replace the need for a mammogram which can detect cancer before symptoms are experienced.

5. How to self-examine your breasts.
Please click on this link for a CANSA video which has easy instructions on when you should self-examine your breast, how you should go about it, and what to look out for.
https://cansa.org.za/video-do-your-monthly-breast-self-examination-to-beat-breast-cancer-cansa/

We trust that this article has answered some questions, empowered you to understand the importance of managing risk where possible, and encouraged a habit of regular self-examination. Self-examination does not replace the need for regular medical check-ups from your GP.

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While all reasonable effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of information contained in this article, information may change or become dated, as new developments occur. The Link group shall not be held liable or accountable for the accuracy, completeness or correctness of any information for any purpose. No content in this article, irrespective of the date or reference source, should be viewed as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor, pharmacist or any other suitably qualified clinician.