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Prospects of surviving breast cancer good, if treated early

OCTOBER is breast cancer awareness month. The fact that a whole month is devoted to promoting awareness of breast cancer shows just how important this is.

Breast cancer is one of the commonest cancers among women. In Zimbabwe it is the second most common. The most common is cervical cancer. However, breast cancer is also one of the most successfully treatable cancers, particularly if detected early.

Last year, according to the World Health Organisation, breast cancer was newly diagnosed in 2,3 million women worldwide. There were 685 000 deaths from breast cancer. By the end of the year there were 7,8 million women still alive who had been diagnosed with breast cancer over the previous five years.

Breast cancer is commonest in women, although there are instances of it occurring in men. It is becoming increasingly common, the World Health Organisation(WHO) says, in low and middle-income countries due to increased life expectancy, urbanisation and the adoption of western lifestyles.

The majority of deaths from the disease also occur in these countries, mainly as a result of its only being detected in its late stages and barriers to health services.

For those not on medical aid and with low incomes, the cost of just having a scan or biopsy can be a barrier to seeking medical confirmation of suspected cancer. The cost of treatment can likewise seem out of reach for many. Yet early detection and treatment are vital for the survival of someone who has breast cancer.

When detected and treated early, there is a good chance breast cancer can be cured. This is why one of the goals of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is to increase awareness of the need for women to regularly examine their breasts for signs of possible cancer and visit their doctor or clinic if they detect any such signs.

If untreated, the cancer may spread from where it began to nearby breast tissue. Over time, the cancer may spread through blood vessels and lymph vessels to other parts of the body. When this happens, the breast cancer is said to have metastasised.

Causes

Breast cancer occurs when cells within your breast tissue multiply uncontrollably, resulting in the formation of a tumour, which can often be felt as a lump. It may occur in the lobules — the milk producing glands — in the ducts which carry milk to the nipple, or in the connective tissue which surrounds and holds the glands and ducts together.

The body’s cells normally divide, grow and multiply in an orderly fashion. With cancer, cells do not die when they should and new cells form when they are not needed.

What causes this to happen has not yet been discovered. However, risk factors have been identified that may suggest an increased likelihood of cancer developing.

Risk factors

The most significant risk factors are being a woman, a family history of breast cancer, a personal history of breast cancer, having had radiation to the chest or face before the age of 30 and certain changes in the breast. Breast cancer can occur at any age after puberty but is commonest in women over 40.

Being overweight, drinking alcohol and smoking are also risk factors. Others are not having had a full term pregnancy or having your first child after the age of 30.

The overall risk of breast cancer is less if you become pregnant at an early age and if you have had several pregnancies.

Some studies suggest breastfeeding may lower the risk of breast cancer, particularly if continued for one-and-a-half to two years.

Women with dense breasts are more likely to develop cancer than those whose breasts are less dense. Dense breasts also make it harder to detect cancer with a mammogram.

Lack of physical exercise may contribute to the risk of breast cancer. Exercising regularly at a moderate or intense level for four to seven hours per week may lower the risk.

Starting menstrual periods before the age of 12 and experiencing menopause later than usual (after 55 years of age) also increase the risk of breast cancer.

Symptoms

The first sign of breast cancer is often a lump or thickening in the breast that you can feel. Unusual changes in the breast’s appearance can also be a warning sign.

Sometimes the lump may be too small to feel or to cause any noticeable changes. If it is not painful, it may be a long time before you notice anything unusual. Often an abnormal area is detected with a mammogram, which may then lead to further testing.

Other possible symptoms include changes in the size, shape, contour or feel of the breast or nipple, a blood-stained or clear fluid discharge from the nipple, tingling, itchiness, increased sensitivity or a burning pain in the breast or nipple, a lump in the area under the arm, unexplained weight loss and persistent fever or chills. Some of these symptoms, however, could be due to other conditions.

Self-examination

Because of the importance of early detection for successful treatment of breast cancer, every woman should make breast self examination a part of her healthcare routine.

You should know how your breasts normally look and feel, so you can notice any changes. Regularly check your whole breast area, your upper chest and your armpits.

Because it is not always possible to detect breast cancer through self-examination, you should  be regularly examined by your doctor, who may refer you for a mammogram, which is an X ray of the breast.

Prevention

There is no sure way of preventing cancer. However, having a healthy diet and adequate exercise reduce the risk of it, so do limiting how much alcohol you drink, not smoking and controlling your weight.

Treatment

The commonest treatment options are surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or hormonal therapy. Sometimes, particularly in the advanced stages, surgery may be combined with drug therapies before or after it.

While there was a time when surgery for breast cancer generally meant a mastectomy, that is removal of the whole breast, these days it is often possible just to remove the tumour, a process called a lumpectomy. This is generally followed by radiation therapy applied to the breast to minimise the chances of the cancer recurring.

Prognosis

While cancer may be frightening, the prospects for surviving breast cancer are good, provided it is detected and treated early. According to the WHO the prospects of survival with treatment are as high as 90 percent, particularly if the cancer is detected and treated early.

  • The information in this article is provided as a public service by the Cimas iGo Wellness programme, which is designed to promote good health. It is provided for general information only and should not be construed as medical advice. Readers should consult their doctor or clinic on any matter related to their health or the treatment of any health problem. — igo@cimas.co.zw or WhatsApp 0772 161 829 or phone 024-2773 0663.

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