Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. The good news is that advances in awareness and treatment look promising.
This is the time of year when we don the pink ribbon for breast cancer. The late Mrs. Evelyn Lauder, daughter-in-law of cosmetics giant Estee, first launched the ribbon at Estee Lauder counters to create awareness and raise funds for the disease in 1993. Since then pink ribbons have raised millions of dollars for the cause. There is still no cure – with multiple sub-types it’s complicated – but there is hope. We have a number of devoted bodies, such as The Breast Cancer Research Trust (BCRT), who have pledged to find a cure within the next decade.
Know Your Breasts
Breast cancer self-examination is controversial as some say it provides no benefit. However, no one can argue the usefulness of being familiar with your own breasts. It’s as easy as taking note of them as you dress, shower, apply moisturizer and look in the mirror. The New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation (NZBCF) recommends examing your breasts from the age of 20.
Changes you should get checked out by your GP include:
- A lump or thickening, especially if it’s only in one breast
- Changes in breast shape or size
- An usual pain in the breast
- Changes in the skin of the breast such as: puckering, dimpling , reddening or a rash
- A turned-in nipple
- Nipple discharge that occurs without squeezing
These don’t automatically point to breast cancer – pregnancy, weight loss or gain, menstruation and menopause could be the cause.
What Does A Lump Feel Like?
According to NZBCF, lumps can feel hard and irregular, or they can feel smooth. A suspicious lump is usually hard and irregular – a bit like a raisin. It may be attached to the surrounding tissue or skin, so it doesn’t move around easily. A non-cancerous lump feels more like a grape (smooth edges and rounded). A GP will order a ‘triple test’ consisting of a clinical examination, imaging (mammogram and ultrasound) and a biopsy if they feel it’s necessary.
What Is A Mammogram?
Jokingly referred to as a ‘boob sandwich’ the breast is squashed between two plates and an x-ray is taken. It’s not the most pleasant test around, and it’s not perfect, but it’s still the most reliable method of detecting breast cancer. It is most effective in older women, as more of the breast tissue is fat, which shows up black on a mammogram. Tumours show up white. In women under 40, breast tissue is dense and also shows up white so ‘looking for a polar bear in a snowstorm’.
Tip: Don’t book in for a mammogram around your period when you’ll be more sensitive.
If you’re over 50, or have a family history of breast cancer, you’re advised to have a mammogram every two years. They’re free for 45- to 69-year-old through BreastScreen Aoteoroa.
What Is An Ultrasound?
Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves – these go through the breast and echo back converting to an image on a computer. A mentioned, dense breast tissue and tumours show up white on a mammogram. On ultrasound dense tissue still shows up white, but abnormalities appear as black making it an effective tool for younger women.
What Is A Biopsy?
A biopsy examines tissue samples extracted from a suspicious area by needle. The specimen is smeared onto a glass slide and read by a pathologist under a microscope.
- Fine aspiration: A very fine needle draws a small amount of fluid and cells.
- Core biopsy: A bigger needle extracts a ‘worm’ of tissue, which is finely sliced and placed on a slide.
- Alcohol : Studies show that one alcoholic drink a day can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer by about five percent while three or more drinks a day can increase the risk bu up to 50 percent.
- Diet and exercise : A study by University of Carolina researchers found the best way to lower your risk of breast cancer is to maintain a healthy weight. The study also found that regular exercise reduces breast cancer risk by 30 percent. Another study found that women who lost weight through healthy eating and exercising experienced a decrease in the hormone linked with breast cancer.
The Power of Pink
Look out for the ‘pink’ ladies on the 12th and 13th of October.
The Good News
Science can now differentiate some of the different types of breast cancer so treatments focus on specifically targeting the different types. The BCRT are tremendously excited about this as the positive impact on treatment and survival rates has the potential to be huge. They say recent developments in epidemiology and genomics show great promise and they’re hopeful that treatment will become aggressive in the near future.
- Breast cancer is the most common invasive cancer among New Zealand women.
- Each year, more than 2,800 women and approximately 20 men are diagnosed with breast cancer.
- Seven New Zealand women a day are diagnosed with the disease.
- New Zealand has the highest level of incidence and third highest death rate from breast cancer in the world.
- Nine out of 10 women who develop breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease.
- Breast cancer is most common in women over 50 years of age although younger women and men are not immune.