December 14, 2017

Look for early signs of breast cancer

By Anu Dev

“I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity” – Angelina Jolie (on getting a double mastectomy)

October is “Breast Cancer Awareness Month”, and although many women are aware of the existence and possibly of the prevalence of breast cancer, I don’t think that there is enough awareness of the things they should be doing for early detection, or about factors that put them at a greater risk of having breast cancer; so I believe this article bears repetition.
In the Caribbean, the WHO announced in 2013 that rates are rising because of our change in lifestyle in imitation of the developed countries. In my first clinical rotation (surgery), we saw a lot of cases of breast cancer, which illustrated the stark statistic. In fact, during my month at the San Fernando General Hospital, the unit I was on had a separate clinic dedicated just to breast complaints. Many of the cases of breast cancer that we saw were unfortunately rather advanced forms of the cancer, and required quite radical surgeries. It was a sobering experience.
By being aware of the things in our life that might put us at risk of breast cancer, we can try to avoid those things — like smoking; cigarette smoking increases your risk of contracting breast cancer and a whole host of other diseases; but that’s a lecture for another time, I suppose.
Since the risk of breast cancer increases with age, if females are socialized from young adulthood to check themselves for early signs of breast cancer, then — statistics have shown — in more than 90% of those cases, with early prognosis, the women can go on to have cancer-free lives. This is an amazing statistic, and is the rationale behind Breast Cancer Awareness Month; and we should all talk openly about it.
A monthly breast self-examination results in the detection of almost 40% of breast cancer; and the steps are very easy to learn, since they consist of varying methods of observing and checking for lumps or thickening of the tissue of the breast or underarm. Sometimes there are changes in the appearance of the breasts or nipple, and even discharge; all these should receive professional scrutiny. The examination can be undertaken during several activities – in the shower, in front of a mirror, or lying down. The goal is to detect any lumps that might have formed since the last examination.
Not all lumps are cancerous, and at a visit to the doctor, a clinical breast examination can be performed by a trained health worker. Obviously, this would increase the chances of early detection.
The most conclusive test is done by a mammogram. A mammogram is an x-ray that allows a qualified specialist to examine the breast tissue for any suspicious area. The breast is exposed to a small dose of iodizing radiation that produces an image of the breast tissue.
Mammograms can be performed at a clinic or hospital, and are the most extensive method of detecting breast cancer today. It is recommended that all women over 40, or those in a high-risk category, should have a mammogram every one or two years.
I, for one, am tired of seeing the devastating effects that cancer has on so many, many people. With breast cancer, we have a chance to make a difference, especially if we intervene early. So let’s fight back, and let’s educate ourselves about this disease. And we can start by examining our breasts for lumps and bumps the next time we step into the shower. And yes, even though more rarely, men can develop breast cancers also.
Detection of cancer doesn’t any longer have to be a kiss of death.