October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.
This is an annual campaign to raise awareness about breast cancer, its impact and also raise funds for breast cancer research. It helps to increase awareness about the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women.
During October people wear pink ribbons to honor survivors, remember those we lost to the disease and to support the progress we are making together to defeat breast cancer.
In 2020, there were 2,3 million women diagnosed with breast cancer and 685 000 deaths globally.
As of the end of 2020, there were 7,8 million women alive who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the past five years, making it the world’s most prevalent cancer.
Breast cancer occurs in every country of the world in women at any age after puberty but with increasing rates in later life.
Approximately 0,5 – 1 percent of breast cancers occur in men. The treatment of cancer in men follows the same principles of management as for women.
Risk Factors of Breast Cancer
- We do not know what causes breast cancer, although we do know that certain risk factors may put you at higher risk of developing it. Studies have shown that some people are more likely to develop cancer than others. These are called “at risk groups”. The behaviour, environmental factors or other things that predisposes at risk groups to cancer are called risk factors. Your risk increases if you:
- Are over forty (40) years of age
- Have a family history of breast cancer
- Smoke and drink alcohol, more than two drinks per day
- Eat a diet high in animal fat and low in fibre
- Have no children or had your first child after you turned 30 years
- Started your menstrual periods early before 12years of age and experience menopause later than usual (after 55 years) you are more at risk
- Excessively use hormone replacement – always consult your doctor on the use of hormones
- Exposed to radiation especially during adolescence
- Have had cancer previously in one breast
- Constantly endure high stress levels
Signs and Symptoms
- It is important to be wary of the common signs and symptoms of breast cancer. The common symptoms of breast cancer include a lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm that persists through the menstrual cycle. A mass or lump, which may feel as small as a pea should also be a cause for concern, especially if it is detected during regular breast self examination. Women must look out for changes in the size, shape, or contour of the breast, blood-stained or clear fluid discharge from the nipple, change in the feel or appearance of the skin on the breast or nipple (dimpled, puckered, scaly, or inflamed), redness of the skin on the breast or nipple, a change in shape or position of the nipple. Other signs include the development of a marble-like hardened area under the skin, an area that is distinctly different from any other area on breast, tingling, itching, increased sensitivity, burning in pain in the breast or nipples, unexplained weight loss as well as persistent fever or chills. Some of the signs and symptoms may however be due to other conditions. It is thus important to consult your doctor or health practitioner should the signs or symptoms present.
- Breast cancer screening refers to testing otherwise-healthy women for breast cancer in an attempt to achieve an earlier diagnosis. The assumption is that early detection will improve outcomes. A number of screening test have been employed including: clinical and self breast exams, mammography, genetic screening, ultrasound, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In Zimbabwe Breast Self Examination (BSE) is encouraged since most of the lumps are discovered by the women themselves. Breast screening may find cancers early. In older women it saves lives since if a cancer is found, it is likely to be smaller. It may, therefore, be possible to remove the lump (by a lumpectomy) instead of removing the whole breast (a mastectomy).
- The method involves the woman herself looking at and feeling each breast for possible lumps, distortions or swelling. It makes one become familiar with the usual appearance and feel of one’s breasts. Getting to know one’s breasts makes it easier to become aware of any changes. Breast self-exam is done about three to five days after one’s period when breasts are less likely to be tender and swollen. Women at menopause should choose a particular day of the month when to do breast self-examination. Early detection of abnormalities gives the doctor a better chance to offer effective treatment.
What to look for during a breast examination:
- On the breast itself:
- Dimpling or puckering of the skin surface
- Enlarged veins
- Lump or thickening which may be painless
- Unusual rash on the nipple or breast
- Persistent pain in the breast though this is not usual
- On the nipple:
- Discharge or blood through the nipple
- Rash on the nipple or around the nipple
- Lump or thickening which may be painless
- An inverted nipple (turned in nipple)
- Change in the position of the nipple
- Lump or thickening beneath the nipple
- On the arm:
- Swelling of the upper arm
- Swelling or lump in the armpit
You should examine your breasts monthly from the age of eighteen years onwards. The best way to do this is while standing up looking into the mirror, standing up in the shower or lying down on the bed.
Preventing breast cancer
About a third of the most common cancers, including breast cancer can be prevented by eating a varied and healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight and regular physical activity.
It is encouraged to eat a diet containing whole foods that a naturally grown and high in fibre. It is also important to avoid refined foods and highly processed foods as they are high in fats, sugars and salts. Instead concentrate on whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, poultry and fish.
Also avoid being overweight or obese by exercising regularly at least five times a week for more than 30 minutes.
Alcohol intake must be reduced, whilst tobacco smoking, sniffing or chewing are to be avoided at all cost.
Also avoid chemical exposure such as pesticides. Managing stress effectively is another important aspect in the prevention of breast cancer as well as other cancers.
Getting involved in relaxation classes and stress management techniques is one way of achieving this.
Breast feeding is a protective factor- this is a common practice in Zimbabwe and must be encouraged.