Find out about the early signs and symptoms of breast cancer and some available preventive health measures that will decrease your likelihood of developing breast cancer.
Breast cancer: 2 words that almost became my reality at 25 and 35, when I experienced 2 breast cancer scares 10 years apart that required a diagnostic mammogram, a targeted ultrasound of my left breast, and preventive counselling.
Beyond reminding me of the preciousness of life, there are a few useful information and life lessons that I have gleaned over the years by being breast cancer aware.
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My intention is that by raising your awareness of early signs and symptoms of breast cancer and of some available preventive measures, these will provide you with the knowledge that you need to navigate your personal health journey with greater confidence and hope.
Breast cancer is a global issue
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women both in developed and developing countries, impacting 2.1 million women each year and causing the greatest number of cancer-related deaths among women.
Although incidence rates are higher amongst women in the developed world, almost 50% of breast cancer cases and 58% of deaths occur in less developed countries. The lowest incidence rates are found in most African countries.
In rare cases, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer. It grows in the small amount of breast tissue men have behind their nipples. It usually happens in men over 60, but can very occasionally affect younger men.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
You should see your doctor if you notice one of the following:
- A new lump or area of thickened tissue in either breast that was not there before
- A worrying fluid discharge from either of your nipples
- Changes in the size or shape of the breast
- A lump or swelling in either of your armpits
- Dimpling on the skin of your breasts
- a rash on or around your nipple
- a change in the appearance of your nipple such as becoming sunken into your breast
- A family history of breast cancer, for it increases the risk by a factor of two or three
In relation to the 2 breast cancer scares that I experienced, during breast self-examination, I had noticed quite a few lumps on my left breast that were growing in size, causing me a lot of pain in my armpit all day long.
I was also experiencing severe pain whenever I tried to move my arm up or down. Finally, I noted a significant change in the size of my breast, which caused me to purchase new bras in a bigger size in an attempt to ease the lingering pain to no avail.
The diagnostic mammogram I had at 25 revealed that I had non-cancerous tumours that would ease in time which were affected by my high oestrogen levels. Fast forward 10 years later, as soon as I experienced a resurgence of the very same symptoms in my left breast, I was referred for an emergency ultrasound scan.
It showed that I had a number of cysts that will subside over time. I received weekly counselling support and medical follow-up at my local general practice (GP) for the medical staff to monitor the progress of the cysts until they eventually subsided.
With the second breast cancer scare that I overcame, I believe my body was reacting to a hugely stressful period of my life I was going through. 3 months earlier I had an open myomectomy, which is a major surgery, to remove 21 fibroids from my uterus.
Fibroids are non-cancerous tumours that usually develop during a woman’s reproductive years (from around the age of 16 to 50) when oestrogen levels are at their highest. And a prolonged exposure to the female hormone oestrogen is one of the main risk factors known to increase the likelihood of breast cancer.
Visit Cancer Research UK for more information about breast cancer symptoms.
Causes of Breast Cancer
The causes of breast cancer still remain unknown to this day, which means that no one is immune to the disease. However, there are a number of risk factors that are known to increase your likelihood of developing breast cancer. These include:
- Your age, particularly if you are over 50
- A previous breast cancer or lump
- Hormones and hormone medicine i.e. long and uninterrupted exposure to oestrogen
- Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
- Contraceptive (or birth control) pill
- Dense breast tissue
- Your family medical history
- Lifestyle factors such as overweight, obesity, alcohol, and smoking
- Radiation such as X-rays and CT scans
In my case, I had had a mirena coil inserted as a contraceptive intrauterine device to regulate my very heavy periods. In addition to that, a previous history of breast lump and a decade long battle with fibroids, with no pregnancy in-between, meant that I had been exposed to high oestrogen over a long period of time. Hence my referrals for an ultrasound scan and weekly medical follow-up support that ensued until my painful cysts disappeared.
In relation to this, it is worth mentioning that having children later in life may slightly increase your risk of developing breast cancer because your exposure to oestrogen is not interrupted by pregnancy.
Breast Cancer Early Diagnosis and Treatment
Detecting breast cancer at an early stage means it may be easier to treat. The chance of making a full recovery from breast cancer, especially if it is detected early, is relatively high.
For this reason, it’s vital that women check their breasts regularly for any changes and always have any changes examined by your doctor. Check the whole breast area, including your upper chest and armpits. If you notice any unusual symptoms such as a breast lump in my case, book an appointment with your medical doctor who will examine you.
If your doctor thinks your symptoms need further assessment as it was my case twice, you will be referred to a specialist breast cancer clinic to have a mammogram, which is an X-ray of your breasts, and/or an ultrasound scan, depending on your circumstances.
If a diagnosis of breast cancer is confirmed, more tests will be needed to determine the stage and grade of the cancer, and the best method of treatment, including a biopsy and various scans and X-rays.
The main treatments for breast cancer are surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy. You may have one of these treatments, or a combination. The type or combination of treatments you have will depend on how the cancer was diagnosed and the stage it’s at.
Breast Cancer Prevention
Diet and lifestyle changes: regular exercise and eating a healthy, balanced diet with minimal alcohol consumption are recommended for all women to avoid breast cancer.
Breastfeeding: studies have shown women who breastfeed are statistically less likely to develop breast cancer than those who do not. This could be attributed to the fact that they do not ovulate as regularly whilst breastfeeding which help stabilise their oestrogen levels.
Genetic testing: this is particularly recommended if you have a family history of breast cancer. Some genetic mutations, particularly in BRCA1, BRCA2 and p53 resulting in a very high risk for breast cancer could be determined through predictive genetic testing.
Mastectomy: this is a surgery to remove the breasts, which can reduce your risk of breast cancer by up to 90% according to the NHS. You can opt for breast reconstruction surgery.
Preventative medicines: in some cases medicines used in breast cancer treatment such as tamoxifen, raloxifene, and anastrozole are recommended to people with a high risk of developing the disease to make it less likely that they will get the illness in future.
Please visit Prevent Breast Cancer to find out more.
I hope you found some positive information in this post that you can share with your family, your colleagues and friends to support each other on your health journey. Until next time, do you and be you my lovelies! xx
World Health Organization (WHO) Breast cancer: prevention and control -https://www.who.int/cancer/detection/breastcancer/en/index1.html
UK National Health Service (NHS) Breast cancer in women overview -https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/breast-cancer/
UK National Health Service (NHS) Breast cancer in men overview -https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/breast-cancer-in-men/
UK National Health Service (NHS) Predictive genetic tests for cancer risk genes – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/predictive-genetic-tests-cancer/
UK National Health Service (NHS) Fibroids Overview – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/fibroids/
Cancer Research UK Breast Cancer Symptoms https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/breast-cancer/symptoms
UK National Health Service (NHS) Intrauterine system (IUS) -Your contraception guide – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/contraception/ius-intrauterine-system/
UK National Health Service (NHS) Breast cancer in women: diagnosis – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/breast-cancer/diagnosis/
UK National Health Service (NHS) Breast cancer in women: treatment – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/breast-cancer/treatment/
World Health Organization (WHO) Cancer Early Diagnosis – https://www.who.int/cancer/prevention/diagnosis-screening/en
UK National Health Service (NHS) Breast cancer in women: prevention https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/breast-cancer/prevention/
Prevent Breast Cancer‘s research projects into preventative drugs – https://preventbreastcancer.org.uk/breast-cancer-research/research-projects/preventative-drugs/