By Dr. Divya Hegde, Specialist – Obstetrics & Gynecology, Thumbay Medical & Dental Specialty Center, Sharjah
It is that time of the year when all the healthcare workers wear pink ribbons and there are campaigns exhorting all to get a mammogram done. October is breast cancer awareness month, an annual campaign done worldwide to increase awareness about the disease. Breast cancer is the most common cancer occurring in women worldwide and a leading cause of mortality .It is estimated that 1 in 8 women may develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Although it was more commonly seen in developed countries, the incidence in developing countries has been steadily increasing due to a change in lifestyle, increased life expectancy and changing reproductive patterns. In developing countries, more women are detected in advanced stage of disease making the outcome poor. Early diagnosis and treatment is vital in increasing the success of treatment.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a group of diseases wherein the cells of breast change and divide without control thereby resulting in a lump. Breast is composed of lobules (milk glands) and ducts which connect lobules. Cancer can occur in either of these cells.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Breast cancer usually has no symptoms in the early stages and therefore screening is important. It usually presents as a small painless lump initially. In advanced stage, there may be lumps in armpits suggesting the spread of disease to lymph nodes. There may also be changes in appearance of skin of the breast, discoloration, nipple retraction, bloody discharge from breast, breast pain, heaviness or swelling. Any suspicious changes need to be evaluated by a doctor.
What can I do to reduce my risk?
There are several risk factors associated with breast cancer like age, ethnicity, family history, early onset of menses, late menopause, diet, not breastfeeding, use of hormone replacement, radiation exposure, obesity and diet. Let us concentrate on potentially modifiable risk factors and reduce chances of getting breast cancer. Women who get regular physical activity have a significant reduction in breast cancer risk compared to women who lead a sedentary life. Studies show that obese women have a higher incidence of breast cancer after menopause. There is some evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, with whole grains and low in processed food has a beneficial effect on breast cancer. Maintain a healthy weight as you age and be physically active. Breastfeeding is known to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Screening for breast cancer
Screening for breast cancer means checking your body for cancer before symptoms appear. We employ screening for those diseases in which early detection and treatment makes a significant improvement in survival and there also has to be an effective screening test. Breast cancer fulfills these criteria.
Some of the common screening methods include:
- Mammography- It is a type of X-ray designed specifically for the breast. It reveals abnormalities, tumor or any suspicious areas. Women and their doctors should have a detailed discussion about their risk factors and plan accordingly. Usually women at average risk are offered a mammogram every 2 years after the age of 40 years.
- Clinical breast examination – The physician looks and feels for any abnormalities in breasts as part of examination. They also check the skin over the breast for any abnormalities and look for lumps in armpits.
- Breast Self-Awareness-Although it is not recommended to do a monthly breast self-examination, all women should be familiar with the appearance and feel of their breasts. They should report any changes to their physician at the earliest.
- Ultrasound breast – It is not usually used to screen breast cancer. However it may be used if age is less than 25 years or in pregnancy.
It is important to be aware of breast cancer since early detection and treatment leads to better survival and outcome. Your health is in your hands and adopting a healthy lifestyle not only reduces the risk of breast cancer but also improves overall health.