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What you need to know about breast cancer

South African women have a one in 31 risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. During October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) urge women and female cancer survivors to encourage one another to adopt a balanced lifestyle and to go for regular screens to reduce their risk of cancer or the recurrence of cancer.

The messages are simple:

  • Women should carry out breast self examinations once a month,
  • Women should have a clinical breast examination (observation and physical examination) by a medical professional once a year, and
  • Women over 40 should go for a mammogram every year.

Most people know the basics of breast cancer awareness, but professionals who work in the field encounter lots of misinformation about breast cancer among their patients. We spoke to Dr Sarah Rayne, a specialist surgeon with an interest in breast diseases, to get the most important facts and common misconceptions about cancer to raise your awareness this October and to find out where you can get checked at reduced rates.

Common misconceptions about breast cancer

  • I am too young to get breast cancer. Despite all the talk about risk factors, breast cancer can happen to any woman, at any age and at any time. Because of this, if you have an abnormality or any symptom at all that you are not sure about, you should get it checked out.
  • I can't get breast cancer because I have no family history. Sadly, 70% to 80% of all breast cancers happen in people with no family history. This is why it's so important for every woman to carry out screening and to get every symptom checked out.
  • Breast cancer is a death sentence. Early detection really can make all the difference to your chances of surviving breast cancer. But it also makes a big difference to the type of treatment that you're going to get. The earlier you catch breast cancer, the less likely you are to need chemotherapy. And cancer treatment has become cleverer. Whereas treatment used to follow a prescribed plan, now tests allow doctors to analyse the personality of each cancer to determine the risk that it will come back and to work out the benefit that chemotherapy will offer.
  • Mammograms increase your risk of breast cancer. This is not true. The radiation dose in a mammogram is extremely low about the same as the radiation exposure that you get when you are visit a shopping mall or fly to Europe.
  • There are alternatives to mammograms for detecting cancer. No! Alternative methods like thermography or mechanised palpation do not have the sensitivity to guarantee that they will pick up cancer in time. Mammograms are the only proven method of detecting breast cancer early.
  • Trauma to the breast can cause cancer. Fortunately, not true. Your baby biting on your nipple, an infection in your milk ducts or your toddler elbowing you in the boob will not cause cancer. Cancer is caused by cells that divide quickly and make mistakes. Trauma to your breast will not cause your cells to do this. There is sometimes a spike in the detection of cancer after trauma to the breast because of the area is examined more frequently.
  • Stress causes cancer. There is no direct relationship between stress and cancer. But it is important to beware of the unhealthy practices that we engage in when we are stressed. Smoking, drinking more (more than two small glasses a day) and exercising less (exercise decreases your breast cancer risk by 42%) all increase your risk of developing cancer.

A helping hand 
The best thing to do to take care of your own breast health is to be informed and to examine your breasts every month for changes or lumps, says Dr Sarah. Women who examine their own breasts regularly pick up lumps earlier.

And remember that while Breast cancer is one of the leading diseases affecting women, but it is by no means the only disease. While you are focusing on checking yourself every year for breast cancer, don't forget to do a PAP smear and to check your blood pressure and HIV status. There's no point in winning one battle but losing the war.

If you are concerned about breast cancer, or have any questions, you can get in touch with Dr Sarah by visiting the Netcare Breast Care Unit website and clicking on the button to Ask Dr Sarah.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Get examined 
One of the reasons that women avoid medical breast examination is concern about costs. Fortunately, there are some affordable options to get yourself checked out some during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and some all year around:

  • The Radiology Society of South Africa is offering reduced-fee mammograms during October.
  • CANSA Care Centres and Mobile Health Clinics will perform free screening or assess any concerning signs or symptoms. Click on the link to find the location of a clinic or the route of the mobile units.
  • Government hospitals will perform clinical examinations on request for free or for a minimal government healthcare charge.
  • Some centres, such as the Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg have a free screening programme. Dr Sarah sees new patients at this hospital on Wednesday mornings for free or minimal government charge and with no referral or appointment. You can email her on helenjoseph.breastcare@gmail.com.
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