Sure, a lot has been said about breast cancer but how much does one really know about the disease? How many people are aware of the fact, for instance, that breast cancer can run in one’s side of the family? Or that most cases of breast cancer occur in people who don’t have a family history of the disease? Anthea van Wyk of the Namibian Oncology Centre shared what breast cancer awareness by saying that October is more than just the pink ribbon month.
The unit manager of the Namibian Oncology Centre explained that Breast Cancer Awareness is an annual international campaign that takes place in October with the aim of increasing awareness about breast cancer; its prevention, detection and treatment. This is all in an effort to reduce the number of fatalities from this disease. “This campaign also creates opportunities for fundraising efforts to support research into the cause and treatment of the disease and provides a platform for the distribution of information and support to people affected by breast cancer and the community at large,” she said.
The incidence of breast cancer among Namibian women is increasing, making the disease the most common of cancers among women. Anthea noted that breast cancer is one of the three most common cancers in Namibia. The most common cancer is skin cancer with 623 confirmed cases per annum, followed by breast cancer (383) and prostate cancer (361).
How it starts
Anthea explained that the cells are the body’s basic unit of life and make up every organ and tissue within the body. “These cells constantly grow and divide in an orderly process to allow for old cells to be replaced by new ones. The DNA in every cell directs all its actions. Our bodies constantly make new cells to help us grow, to replace worn-out cells and to heal damaged cells after an injury. In a normal cell, when DNA is damaged the cell either repairs the damage or dies. Sometimes the damaged DNA is not repaired but the cell doesn’t die like it should. Instead, the cell goes on making new cells that the body doesn’t need. These new cells all have the same damaged DNA as the first cell. These abnormal cells start diving at a rapid and uncontrolled rate and invade the surrounding tissues which mark the start of cancer. When this process starts in the tissues of the breast we refer to it as breast cancer,” she further explained.
Are you at risk?
Every woman is potentially at risk of getting breast cancer. However, there’s a certain age range that would put women in a higher risk category. “The risk of developing breast cancer increases as we age, however women under 40 years of age are considered at low risk of developing the disease, though we do see many cases of breast cancer in younger women every year. Women over the age of 60 years have the highest incidence rates of breast cancer,” said Anthea.
The other side of Breast cancer
Anthea noted that many people are not aware of the fact that breast cancer does not only affect women, men can develop breast cancer too. In Namibia approximately 2% of recorded cases of breast cancer were found in men.
“Although one of the most common signs and symptoms of breast cancer is the development of a lump in the breast tissue, 8 out of 10 breast lumps are benign (not cancer). Most breast lumps are cysts, fibroadenomas, scar tissue, or simply nodules of dense breast tissue. It is still essential to investigate any lumps in the breast to confirm that they are not malignant,” she advised.
“It should also be noted that pain is very rarely a symptom of breast cancer and many non-painful changes in the breast are ignored even though they could be warning signs of cancer.”
“Breast cancer does not always present itself in the form of a lump. Certain changes in the breasts may indicate the early stages of cancer and should be investigated: thickening of the skin in the breast or underarm area; swelling, warmth, redness, or darkening of the breasts; a change in breast size or shape; dimpling or puckering of the breast skin (including the nipple); an itchy, scaly rash on the nipple; a discharge from the nipple; or incessant pain in a particular area of the breast.”
“Breast cancer is not a death sentence! In most cases those diagnosed with breast cancer, particularly if it diagnosed early and treated, survive and go on to lead healthy lives,” said Anthea.
The American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer (www.cancer.org) recommends that women ages 40 to 44 with a family history of breast cancer should undergo annual mammograms while women aged 45 to 54 should undergo annual mammograms regardless of a family history of disease. Women 55 and older should have mammograms every 2 years, or can continue yearly screening if they are at high risk for developing the disease. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and all women should know how their breasts normally look and feel and report any breast changes to a health care provider right away. Monthly breast self-examination is vital to detect early warning signs of disease.
Detecting and preventing breast cancer
Anthea explained that breast cancer prevention starts with leading a healthy lifestyle such as eating a balanced diet, staying physically active, not smoking and a limit to one’s alcohol intake. “Some risk factors, such as a family history of the disease, can’t be changed, however one can minimise their risk by undergoing regular screening for the disease. Early detection is essential to a positive outcome and monthly breast self-examinations are key.”
“A lump in any part of the breast or underarm area that may not be visible but can be felt and the unusual thickening or swelling of the breast tissue can be signs of breast cancer. Furthermore, a change in the shape or size of one or both breasts dimpling or puckering of the breast skin, any changes to the nipple including itchiness, scaly skin, a rash, a discharge or the nipple pulling inwards as well as a pain in a particular area of the breast that doesn’t go away can be signs of breast cancer.”Anthea advises that people visit their health care provider for a breast examination every year and follow the recommended screening guidelines once they reach the age of 40 years.
The month of October is more than pink ribbons, it serves to create awareness among people and creating understanding that breast cancer exists and taking steps to get it diagnosed early is the way to go.