What is Breast Cancer Awareness Month?
It is a worldwide annual campaign taking place in October, involving thousands of organisations, to highlight the importance of breast awareness, education and research.
There are about 1.38 million new cases and 458 000 deaths from breast cancer each year (IARC Globocan, 2008). Breast cancer is by far the most common cancer in women worldwide, both in the developed and developing countries. In low- and middle-income countries the incidence has been rising steadily in the last years due to increase in life expectancy, increased urbanization and adoption of western lifestyles.
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer affecting women in Malaysia. About one in 19 women in this country are at risk, compared to one in eight in Europe and the United States. Did you know that of the new cases of female breast cancer reported in Malaysia in 2003, 64% of these cases were women between the ages of 40 to 60 years old?
According to The Breast Cancer foundation Malaysia, Chinese women seemed to be at greatest risk, with an incidence of 59.7 per 100,000; followed by Indian women (55.8 per 100,000) and Malay women (33.9 per 100,000).
Signs and Symptoms
Every woman should know how her breasts normally look and feel, so she can recognize any changes that may occur. While knowing what to look for is important, a woman should still get her regular mammograms and clinical breast exams, as these tests can help detect breast cancer before she even has symptoms,
Common signs of breast cancer may include:
- Lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
- Swelling or thickening of all or part of the breast
- Dimpling (wrinkling) or skin irritation of breast skin
- Localized, persistent breast pain
- Redness, scaliness or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
- Nipple discharge
- Any change in the size or shape of the breast
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
- Breast exam. Your doctor will check both of your breasts and lymph nodes in your armpit, feeling for any lumps or other abnormalities.
- Mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. Mammograms are commonly used to screen for breast cancer. If an abnormality is detected on a screening mammogram, your doctor may recommend a diagnostic mammogram to further evaluate that abnormality.
- Breast ultrasound. Ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images of structures deep within the body. Ultrasound may be used to determine whether a new breast lump is a solid mass or a fluid-filled cyst.
- Removing a sample of breast cells for testing (biopsy). A biopsy is the only definitive way to make a diagnosis of breast cancer. During a biopsy, your doctor uses a specialized needle device guided by X-ray or another imaging test to extract a core of tissue from the suspicious area.
- Breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI machine uses a magnet and radio waves to create pictures of the interior of your breast. Before a breast MRI, you receive an injection of dye. Unlike other types of imaging tests, an MRI doesn’t use radiation to create the images.
How To Perform A Breast Self-Exam?
The main risk factors for breast cancer include being a woman and getting older (most breast cancers are found in women ages 55 and older).
Uncontrollable factors that may increase risk include personal/family history, race, breast density and menstrual period history. In addition, having changes in certain breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) increases the risk of developing breast cancer.
Certain risk factors are lifestyle-related, including the use of birth control pills, hormone therapy after menopause, having children, drinking alcohol, being overweight or obese, and not being physically active. Having one or several risk factors does not mean a woman will develop breast cancer. Women need to become familiar with all of the risk factors. For those they can control, they need to make lifestyle decisions that can lower the risk,
To lower risk of breast cancer:
- Get to and stay at a healthy weight. Balance your food intake with physical activity to avoid excessive weight gain.
- Be physically active. Every week, get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity (or a combination of these).
- Limit or avoid alcohol.
By and large, breast cancer is a curable disease. It can be cured and the treatments you can have today are very effective.
Early detection is key!
As with most cancers, the earlier breast cancer is detected and diagnosed, the better the chances of successful treatment. The goal of screening exams for early detection of breast cancer is to identify breast abnormalities as early as possible. If breast cancer is found early, there are more treatment options and a better chance for survival. Breast cancers that are found because they are causing symptoms tend to be more advanced. One of the best ways of ensuring that breast cancer is for you to be breast aware, that is understanding and knowing how your breast looks and feel like under normal circumstances, so that you are able to seek early medical advice if there are any changes in either breast.
Next read: Breast Cancer Screening In Malaysia
Your doctor determines your breast cancer treatment options based on your type of breast cancer, its stage and grade, size, and whether the cancer cells are sensitive to hormones. Your doctor also considers your overall health and your own preferences.
Most women undergo surgery for breast cancer and many also receive additional treatment after surgery, such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy or radiation. Chemotherapy might also be used before surgery in certain situations.
There are many options for breast cancer treatment, and you may feel overwhelmed as you make complex decisions about your treatment. Consider seeking a second opinion from a breast specialist in a breast center or clinic. Talk to other women who have faced the same decision.
When someone close to you has been diagnosed with cancer, your support is important; show that you care, and let them know you’re willing to help when they need it most.
A diagnosis of breast cancer is deeply upsetting and shocking – not just for the patient, but also for family, friends and workmates.
- Ask “when”, rather than “what”
Many women find it hard to ask for help. Make it easier for your friend or relative to accept your help by asking “when?” instead of “what?” For instance: “When can I do your grocery shopping?” Helpful acts can often ease the anxiety of finding the right words of support when facing a loved one’s cancer diagnosis.
- Keep in touch and listen
Keep in regular contact, by sending a card, making a phone call or visiting. People with cancer often have many visitors when they are first diagnosed, but cancer treatment can be lengthy. You may feel awkward and don’t know what to say – there are no ‘right’ words. Just keep in touch as time passes.
Each woman with breast cancer has different needs. Some want to talk about their cancer, others welcome a diversion. Pay attention to her cues. And don’t be afraid to ask her what she wants. Offer to help out with any community roles to remove the stress of having to step back for a while.
- Help with childcare and meals
Treatment for breast cancer can be time-consuming and tiring. In addition to the tiredness your friend may be experiencing, nausea can make cooking and eating even more of a chore.