October marks breast cancer awareness month in an international bid to raise awareness about the disease.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in all women, apart from non-melanoma skin cancer, with a lifetime risk of 1 in 26 South African women, according to the 2012 National Cancer Registry.
Symptoms to look out for include lumps in the breasts or armpits, enlargement of one breast or arm, swelling of the gland in one underarm, discharge from the nipple (if you are not breast-feeding), inversion of one or both nipples, and dimpling of a nipple.
Some women and men may be more more at risk of breast cancer as a result of their genetics.
“Pregnancy can be a risk factor as well,” says Sr Colleen Marco of the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA). “If your first pregnancy was beyond the age of 35 years, it could be an associative risk factor to breast cancer.”
Marco notes that males can also get breast cancer: “Men have the nipples and breast tissue, it’s just the fat content is less so it is easier to feel and to observe if there are any abnormal changes. So both sexes should do breast self examinations.”
According to Marco, the best time to do a breast examination is seven days after the end of the menstruation cycle. For women who are not menstruating because of contraceptives or menopause, she suggests that they select a specific day of the month for their self-examination and stick to it.
Dr Lynne Julie, a doctor for Stellenbosch Campus Health Services says: “I think students know about breast cancer, but they are not always certain when and how to start screening for it. Students need to be doing monthly breast self-examinations. They should see a doctor or clinical nurse practitioner at least once a year for a clinical breast examination.”
“Students are able to see any one of our doctors or clinical nurse practitioners for their yearly clinical breast examinations,” says Julie. While students are able to go for an examination at campus health, they will be referred to the closest radiology unit for a mammogram if necessary.
When further testing is required there are multiple ways to do so. Marco explains the difference between screening and diagnostic mammograms: “With screening mammograms you’re going from a non-disease state to determine if there is anything, diagnostic means that an abnormality was found during self-examination or clinical examination and they just want to confirm what it is.”
There are however many things apart from self-examinations and screenings that people can do to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer, and disease in general. “It is about risk reduction,” says Marco. “Exercising regularly, eating healthily, drinking enough water, cutting out smoking, and cutting down on alcohol and sugar consumption.”
“Genetic counselling is also something that is very important,” Marco insists. “If an immediate family member is diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40 to 50 years, your risk is even greater. You need to share that kind of information with a health practitioner and they can refer you for genetic counselling where genetic testing can be done.” – Aidan Jones & Tegan Mouton