If you look up the word awareness in the Oxford dictionary, you’ll find the following definition:
Knowledge or perception of a situation or fact; Concern about and well-informed interest in a particular situation or development.
Would you say that you are concerned and well-informed about breast cancer? If not, continue reading. If you are, then continue reading as there may be something new to you. We’ll talk about what you can do to protect yourself and how to recognise that it is time to see your doctor.
“It won’t happen to me” mantra
Unless you’re a psychic Superwoman who can see into the future, there is no reason to believe that you’re invincible. 1 in every 9 women in the UK are affected by breast cancer. Don’t allow yourself to contribute to that statistic.
“OK, you got my attention, but why is it such a big deal?”
Breast cancer is a serious illness, usually fatal if left untreated; if discovered in time, it is manageable and the success rate is high. In other words, there is no reason to panic – just a reason to follow the recommendations regarding the prevention.
“How do I know if I’m at risk?”
There are several factors that can increase your chances of getting breast cancer. Some of them we can control, some of them we can’t do anything about. So, if you…
Men can develop breast cancer too, but if you’re a woman you are a 100 times more likely to suffer from this problem. This is probably due to estrogen and progesterone, hormones which promotes breast cancer cell growth.
…are middle aged or older
The risks get higher with age. Only about 1 out of 8 invasive breast cancers are diagnosed in women younger than 45, while in women older than 55 this ratio rises up to 2 out of 3 invasive breast cancers.
…are related to someone who has or had breast cancer
If your mother, sister or daughter developed breast cancer, your chances almost double. Still, only 15% of women with breast cancer have a family member with the same issue – which means that a great majority of women (85%) have no relatives with this form of cancer.
…are genetically predisposed
In 5 -10% of cases, breast cancer develops due to a genetic mutation of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which means that we inherit this from our parents. In some families, risk of developing breast cancer during their lifetime is as high as 80%. In these cases, cancer usually develops in younger women and often affects both breasts.
…have already defeated breast cancer
If you have had cancer in one of your breasts, the chances of it developing in the other one or in a different part of the same breast increase by 3-4 times. Cruel joke by Mother Nature – like one wasn’t enough…
White women have slightly higher chances of developing breast cancer than African-American women.
Some of the factors depend on our lifestyle and our choices, for example if…
…you haven’t had children or if you had your first child after the age of 30, your chances are slightly increased. This is not a big cause for concern since the effect of pregnancy on the risk of developing breast cancer is not universal – pregnancy can even increase the chance for certain types of cancer.
…you’re using oral contraceptives, you’re at a slightly higher risk. Again, not a major reason for concern – this effect diminishes after 10 years of not using birth control pills.
…you like to party and that means a few shots of tequila on a night out and a few glasses of wine over dinner, your chances increase by around 1.5 times more than in women who don’t consume alcohol. You shouldn’t be having more than one drink a day in order to protect yourself from this and other types of cancer.
…you are overweight and menopausal, so it is time to think about some physical activity and an improved diet. In menopause your ovaries stop producing estrogen and your fat cells take over the production. More fat means more estrogen, which promotes cancer cell growth in your breasts.
“What about parabens and tight bras?”
There are many myths about breast cancer and what causes it. Here are some of the most popular ones:
Parabens in antiperspirants
Due to one scientific study which was badly interpreted, parabens became the most dreaded substance in cosmetics and personal hygiene products. The myth says that parabens that are present in antiperspirants manage to get into the breast tissue, causing a build-up of toxins and cancer development. Many studies have been conducted since then and no similar evidence has been found. No reason yet for going natural with regards to body odour.
Bras which don’t fit well
This myth claims that tight bras obstruct the lymph flow and increase the risk of breast cancer. A recent study proved this myth to be false. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t choose a bra that fits well – you’ll feel more comfortable and better.
Breast implants make mammograms harder to read, therefore making the diagnosing process a bit more difficult, but they don’t increase the risk of breast cancer. They sometimes cause the formation of scar tissue in the breast, which can be mistaken for a lump caused by cancer. Regular check-ups with your gynaecologist will be enough to put your mind at ease. Breast implants may cause a rare form of lymphoma. However, scientific evidence is insufficient regarding this connection.
“Wow. All this talk about risk factors scared me.”
There is no reason to panic. There are many things you can do to prevent the risk of breast cancer.
Examine your breasts
A new lump or mass on your breasts is not necessarily cancer, but it could be a symptom. These lumps can be hard or soft, rounded or with irregular edges, painless or painful. Other symptoms can be seen by the change in the size or shape of one or both breasts, swelling on the breast or in the armpit, skin dimpling, nipple turning inwards, redness or thickening of the skin on the breast or on the nipple and nipple discharge (which is not breast milk) sometimes with blood.
You can breastfeed
It has been found that breastfeeding your baby reduces your risk of getting breast cancer, possibly because it reduces a woman’s total number of lifetime menstrual cycles. However, this area needs additional research.
You can exercise
Even a light activity such as 2-3 hours of walking per week will reduce the risk by up to 18%. For optimal health, strive to include 150 minutes of moderately intense or 75 minutes of highly intense activity into your weekly routines.
You can have regular check-ups
Nowadays there are many options which allow early detection of breast lesions. These include mammogram, breast ultrasound, biopsy, clinical exam, screening and genetic testing. Consult your physician on which option is the best solution for you.
You can examine yourself
You can do this alone or with your partner, which is definitely more fun. Choose the time in your menstrual cycle when your breasts are not swollen and tender.
Stand in front of the mirror and observe your breasts. Do you see any changes in size, shape, asymmetry, swelling, redness or nipples being tucked in? Lift your arms above your head (Picture 2) and then press them firmly on your hips (Picture 3), whilst observing all of the previous signs mentioned.
Lift your arms, one by one, and examine the armpit. Try not to tense your arm, because it will make it harder to notice any changes or swelling. (Picture 4)
Use the finger pads of your three middle fingers to search for lumps on your breasts. Now slowly move your hand performing circular motions, going up and down, covering the whole surface of the skin. Use different amounts of pressure to notice any changes in both superficial and deeper tissues. Make sure that you cover the whole area from the collar bone to your lower ribs. Press the nipples lightly: there should be no pain and no discharge coming out of the nipples. (Picture 5)
Lie down on a flat surface (Picture 6) placing your arm behind your head. Repeat the procedure from the previous two steps. This position makes it easier to notice any changes in the tissue. If you’re not certain how to perform these movements or what you’re looking for, ask your a GP or nurse to show you.
The last piece of advice I have for you: take care of your breasts. Watch them, examine them, and really get to know them. It may save your life someday.