October is breast cancer awareness month. Breast cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer in women worldwide. It is also the second most common cancer, second only to Lung cancer. Every year, millions of women are diagnosed with this disease.
In this post, I will be answering some common questions asked about breast cancer, and providing overall basic information on what it is, and how you can keep yourself or your loved ones safe.
What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is a cancer that develops in the breast. Cancer can simply be defined as cells growing out of control. These rogue cells usually multiply and invade normal cells. In Breast Cancer, these cells grow in the ducts, lobules , fatty tissues or connective tissues of the breast. These rogue cells can then invade new areas of the body usually starting from the lymph nodes under the arms and then to other parts of the body.
What puts me at risk?
There are different risk factors for breast cancer. Some can be changed/modified and some can not. It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean you will get the disease. The main risk factors are being a woman, and older age. Men can also get breast cancer but it is more common in women.
Non-modifiable risk factors
- Age i.e older than 50
- Genetics and family history
- Race and ethnicity i.e white women have higher risks compared to African American women
- Reproductive history i.e early menstrual period (before 12) or late menopause (after age 55)
- Having dense breasts
- Having other kinds of cancer
Modifiable risk factors
- Obesity or overweight
- Drinking alcohol
- Having 1st child after age 30, not breastfeeding, or never having a full term pregnancy
- Not being physically active
- Hormone replacement therapies
What can I do to minimize my chances of getting breast cancer?
It is important to focus on what you can control. Like I stated in the last point, some risk factors are modifiable and some are not.
Some things you can do to reduce your risk include:
- Limit alcohol
- Quit smoking
- Become physically active
- Watch your weight
- Go for regular screening
How do I check my breasts?
Early detection is one of the best ways to increase your chances of surviving breast cancer.
Breast cancer screening includes breast self-exams, regular doctor check ups, and mammograms
While there are back and forth arguments on its efficacy, Breast self-exam remains a free easy screening method that you can do by yourself to check for lumps and other breast abnormalities.
This video shows you how to do a breast self-exam
Key points to remember:
- It should be done around the same time every month
- Best time to do a breast self-exam is 7-10 days after the start of your period
- Start by checking your breasts in the mirror
- Follow a definite pattern
- Make sure to check your armpits as it also contains breast tissue
What am I looking for when I check my breasts?
- Unusual size, shape or color
- Dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin
- Inverted nipples, or nipples that have changed position
- Rashes, swelling, redness, soreness
- Unusual discharge from the nipples
- Lumps or thickenings
I feel a lump, what next?
First, and most importantly- DO NOT PANIC.
Most breast lumps are non cancerous and benign. Also depending on what day of your cycle you are, you may develop cystic lumps that go away on their own.
If the lump feels the same as your other breast, then it is probably something you should not be worried about. Remember you are looking for new changes in your breast. If it is a lump you have always had, then maybe it is normal for you.
Schedule an appointment with your health care provider. Your health care provider will do their assessment, ask you a couple of questions, and determine the necessary steps based on this. These next steps could include imaging i.e mammogram, ultrasound or MRI, biopsies, lumpectomy etc. Click HERE for some of the questions your health care provider might ask to come up with a diagnosis.
Remember, Breast self-exam is not a definite screening tool. It should be done in conjunction with other screening tools including mammograms. The recommendations for mammograms usually vary depending on your age and family history, but women over 50 should have a regular mammogram done at least every 2 years.
Any additional resources to check?
There are different support services depending on the country you live in. Google information for breast cancer support centers, or ask your health care provider for information on resources and support that is available to you.
For people in Canada, here are a few links that might help:
For people in Nigeria, there are lots of organisations and NGOS that work to provide information and support services for Breast Cancer. Some of them are:
- Breast Cancer organisation of Nigeria (BRECAN)- http://brecan.org/
- Care Organization Public Enlightenment (COPE)- copebreastcancer.org
- Leah Foundation- https://www.leahfoundation.org/
In conclusion, know that Breast Cancer is not a death sentence. There are lots of treatment options available now, and research is ongoing to develop even more treatment options and hopefully a cure.
Key take aways from this post are:
CHECK YOUR BREASTS
MINIMIZE YOUR RISKS
GO FOR REGULAR CHECK UPS AND SCREENING
PS: This post should in no way substitute for professional medical advice. If you are having any concerns, please speak to a medical practitioner