Reams have been written and volumes are spoken about breast cancer, still the most common form of cancer among women after melanoma.
More than 5,000 women succumb to the disease a year in SA and statistics suggest it is on the climb. That is according to the Cansa website that also notes more than 19 million women in South Africa aged 15 and older are at risk of the disease that accounts for just under 1% of the total annual causes of death.
General practitioner Dr Tshego Masemola says despite many media and informational campaigns, there are still many myths surrounding the disease and, in many instances, a dangerous measure of ignorance.
“One of the biggest myths is when people believe that if there is no family history, there is limited or no risk at all,” says Dr Masemola.
“If I tell you that my mom, my dad, my grandparents had breast cancer, I am at a higher risk, that is correct. But it does not mean if you have no family member who has had breast cancer then you are scot free.”
She says there are several risk factors that must be taken into consideration..
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In addition, she says that breast cancer is not limited to women and men must take as much care and manage risk. “Anyone with breast tissue can be at risk.” But this does not mean that unusual bruising or lumps because of injury will cause cancer, either.
“A myth seems to be doing the rounds that a breast injury or bruising could lead to breast cancer,” says Dr Masemola. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” However, frequent self-examination or check-ups by a medical professional is advised.
Another urban myth is that bras cause breast cancer. “There is no logical explanation for why this myth ever saw the light of day. There is no way a garment that’s sole purpose is to support breasts, can give you cancer. Another one debunked,” adds Dr Masemola.
Check your breasts regularly
“Check your breasts regularly.” That is the rule of thumb says Dr Masemola who says that women should do this at 10 days prior to menstruation.
“The first thing you do when you examine your breasts is you use a basic, simple examination technique, which is what you see; look at the colour, what is the texture, is there discoloration? Is there a distinct difference in size? We usually look at it from the inside and work our way out.”
“So, from the inside out, look at the nipple. What is the colour of the nipple? Is it dimpling? Has it moved? Has it been pushed inwards? And then is there any visible discharge? And then around the surrounding area, the areola. Look and examine the structure, the colour, if there is a discharge.”
Next, move onto the actual breast skin. Here, she says, check for pigmentation, darker patches, redness or colours you have not seen before. Is there a dimpling or orange-peel like appearance that looks out of place? Look for protruding lumps.
Next is touch. Breasts are divided into four quadrants. Work in a clockwise manner and describe, or write down, what you feel. Is there pain when you apply or release pressure, are there lumps and can you cup your hand or fingers underneath them? Does it feel like the lump is attached to the skin, or loose beneath it?
See how it behaves and record it. Take measurements and make sure you identify which quadrant it is in. “Then, share with your doctor.” Also, do not forget to check for swollen lymph glands on your inner-upper arm and down the side of your breasts.
The importance of frequent examination cannot be underestimated. Dr Masemola adds that the avoidance of risk plays an equal part.
“Over-consumption of alcohol, smoking, the usual risks associated with cancer must not be discounted. As women age beyond 40, risk increases substantially.”
There is a lot to be said for building and maintaining a healthy lifestyle from a younger age, she notes, as this has latent benefits as we get older.