Breast cancer: Risks, symptoms and facts

Medihelp

2021-10-05

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Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, with a lifetime risk of 1 in 25 in South Africa.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization announced that breast cancer has now overtaken lung cancer as the world’s most commonly-diagnosed cancer

There are no readily available statistics on the number of people living with breast cancer in South Africa.

According to Gerda Strauss, CANSA's Head of Service Delivery, early detection is the key, as it dramatically improves women’s chances of survival because treatment can start immediately.

Risk factors for breast cancer

The chances of getting breast cancer increase with age, and most women are older than 50 when they are first diagnosed. Younger women are however also increasingly diagnosed with breast cancer. The risk of getting breast cancer is higher if a close relative had breast cancer, as there may be an abnormal gene associated with a high risk of breast cancer.

If you have a personal history of cancer and you have received treatment for it, it could mean that you are at a higher risk for developing breast cancer later in life. Very dense breast tissue can also increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer and makes it more difficult to spot cancer on mammograms. Women who have never given birth or who had their first child after age 30 have a slightly higher breast cancer risk, as pregnancy reduces a woman's total number of lifetime menstrual cycles.

Using oral contraceptives can also slightly increase the risk of getting breast cancer, whilst women who are post-menopausal and who are using combination hormone replacement therapy (oestrogen and progestogen) also have an increased risk of breast cancer.

Alcohol consumption can increase the risk of breast cancer, and studies have shown that a lack of physical activity also increases cancer risk.

Symptoms and signs

Strauss emphasises that it is important for women to do monthly self-examinations of their breasts, as this can assist with the early detection of irregularities.

One of the most common symptoms or signs of breast cancer is a lump in the breast or armpit, but there are also other warnings signs such as an unusual swelling in the armpit or changes in the texture of the skin on or around the breast. A change in the skin around the nipple or nipple discharge, dimpling of the nipple or nipple retraction are also possible warning signs. Other physical signs such as an unusual increase in the size of one breast or one breast being abnormally lower than the other with nipples on different levels should also be cause for concern.

According to Strauss, there is no need to panic when you do find a lump, as most breast lumps are benign. This does not mean you should ignore a lump and it is important to see your doctor for a proper evaluation.

Mammograms

TFemale Medihelp members have access to preventive care benefits such as mammograms. It is recommended that women aged 40 and older should get a mammogram annually, as it is has proven considerably effective in the early detection of cancer. All Medihelp’s plans offer benefits for a mammogram for women aged 40 and older once every two years, if requested by a doctor. A mammogram is a breast X-ray used to examine breast tissue by compressing the breast gently between a paddle and an X-ray tube. It helps to reveal changes in breast tissue and abnormalities that may have gone undetected during breast self-examination by the patient or doctor.

There are different types of surgery for breast cancer. During a lumpectomy, the tumour and surrounding tissue are removed and the rest of the breast is preserved. During a mastectomy, the entire breast is removed. Sometimes, the skin over the breast and the nipple can be left intact. With a double mastectomy, both breasts are removed.

Myths and facts

There are many misconceptions regarding breast cancer, even though it is one of the better-known cancers. Separating myth from fact:

Myth: Only older women are diagnosed with breast cancer.
Fact: Women under 40 can and do get breast cancer.

Myth: Only women with a family history of breast cancer are affected.
Fact: All women are at risk and most women diagnosed with breast cancer have no known family history.

Myth: Breast cancer always appears as a lump.
Fact: Breast cancer may not always initially cause a lump.

Myth: I can’t get breast cancer because I never had children.
Fact: Women who have had no children or who had their first child after age 30 have a slightly higher breast cancer risk.

Myth: If I lead a healthy lifestyle, I won’t get breast cancer.
Fact: A healthy lifestyle can help lower the risk for breast cancer, but does not eliminate it.

Sources:
https://cansa.org.za/womens-health
https://www.scp.co.za/procedures/mammography
https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/screening-tests-and-early-detection/mammograms/mammograms-what-to-know-before-you-go.html
https://www.surgeon.co.za/patients-corner/types-of-operations/mastectomy-or-lumpectomy-for-breast-cancer-or-breast-biopsy-for-lumps-or-abnormal-mammograms
https://www.mybreast.org.za/breast-health/breast-cancer/can-breast-cancer-be-treated
https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/breast-cancer/diagnosis
https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/breast-cancer/types-treatment
https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/treatment.html

 

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