Pink! The colour of the month!
October is being celebrated as the breast cancer awareness month all over the world. It is the time of the year when doctors, nurses, dieticians and social workers join hands to strengthen the fight against this deadly cancer.
So why is this so important? Well to start with breast cancer is the second most common cancer affecting women. (the first being lung cancer) One out of every 8 women is expected to suffer from this disease once in her lifetime. Also it is a disease that affects the woman of the house but leaves a mark on the entire family. And most importantly there is enough evidence to show that both prevention and early detection can reduce the damage caused by this cancer.
Before we talk about prevention, we need to know what the risk factors for Breast cancer are. Most important is your age. This cancer is mostly seen in women over the age of 50, but can develop in younger women as well. But the risk increases as you grow older. Then comes family history and genetic factors. If you have had any female member in your immediate family (mother, sister, aunt, grandmother, daughter) with breast cancer, especially before the age of 40 then you are at a higher risk. Two or more relatives with breast cancer at any age is again a risk factor. Although male breast cancer is rare, if anyone in your family has had it, it is again a high risk factor. The point to remember is that if anyone in the family has had breast cancer, you must consult your doctor to discuss specific preventive strategy for you and your family. History of ovarian cancer in family members also increases your risk of both cancers.
Another set of risk factors is linked to your periods, pregnancies and breast feeding. So having periods from an early age, menopause at a late age, first baby at a more advanced age ( let’s say after 35) and not breast feeding, all increase your risk of Breast cancer. SO do think about these when you are planning your life, especially if you have any other risk factors.
Hormonal medications: Oral contraceptives have often been linked with breast cancer. However the evidence is not very strong. Oral contraceptive pills (those that contain both estrogen and progesterone) are known to increase the chance of other non cancer breast conditions. A recent guideline by the NHS (UK) reports a slight increase in breast cancer while you are on the pills. So speak to your gynecologist if you have any concerns. Certain types of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) medicines, used for menopause, do have an increased risk. Again, speak to your doctor if you have been advised to use HRT.
Another very important set of risk factors has to do with lifestyle.
Smoking and alcohol increase your risk of breast cancer. Avoid smoking and limit alcohol to maximum of two drinks per week. Obesity also increases the risk. Being physically active reduces the risk, try and walk for just 15-20 minutes per day and you would have done yourself a huge favour! two and a half hours of moderate activity per week can decrease your risk of having breast cancer by as much as 30 %!!
Sadly, despite the healthiest of lifestyles, many women still get breast cancer. This tells us that no one is really safe or protected from this condition. Here comes the role of early detection.
There are three main ways to achieve this.
Breast Self examination: This is the examination of the breasts by the woman herself, preferable every month after her periods. This was very popular in the 1970s but recently some studies has shown that it may not really increase early detection of cancer. Instead it was found to increase the anxiety in women due to benign lumps and a increased rate of unnecessary biopsies. However if you are motivated to do the Self Breast examination then you must learn the correct technique form your doctor.
Clinical Breast Examination: This refers to Examination by your GP or gynecologist to try and detect any lumps. However this is no more recommended for early detection of breast cancer as studies have not shown much advantage.
The American cancer society recommends that screening mammograms should be offered from the age of 40 with annual mammograms till 54 and then be done every 2 years. The NHS (UK) recommends 2 yearly mammograms between the ages of 50-70 years. They are thinking of increasing the age range from 47-73 years now. More frequent screening will be suggested to you by your doctor if you have a strong family history or any other risk factors.
A mammogram is an X ray of the breasts taken while compressing the breast between two plates. It can be slightly uncomfortable but has no long term harmful effects on you. If there is anything suspicious on the mammogram you may be called back in for further tests like ultrasound, needle aspiration or biopsy. 4 out of every ten women who undergo mammograms are called back in but only one out of them may actually have something serious.
So put on your walking shoes, Get active and do go for your screenings. It might help you to live a healthier and happier life!