Why you need to be abreast of breast cancer
Breast cancer happens when cells in the breast tissue grow abnormally. These cancerous cells usually form a tumour which might appear as a lump or be detected in a breast screening.
In Australia, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, but it can also affect men. In fact, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer by their 85th birthday. While it is treatable if caught early, around 3,000 women – and 33 men – died of breast cancer in 2020. We all have a role to play in helping beat these statistics through prevention, early detection and general breast cancer awareness.
Symptoms of breast cancer
To help protect yourself and others, it’s important to be aware of the signs of breast cancer. Early detection of breast cancer gives you the best chance of beating it. If something isn’t sitting right with you, go and get checked! Some of the breast cancer symptoms can include:
- lumps in the breast
- changes in the size or shape of the breast
- changes to the breast skin, like dimpling
- crusting or redness in the nipple
- nipple discharge
- unusual or persistent breast pain or armpit swelling.
If you notice any of these symptoms, don’t delay in getting your GP’s advice.
How can you reduce your risk?
There are several lifestyle changes you can make that could reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.
- Maintain a healthy body weight
- Be physically active on most, preferably all days of the week
- Choose a varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables
- Limit your alcohol intake - even small amounts increase risk
- Quit smoking
Checking your own breasts
It’s important to be familiar with your own breasts so you know what’s normal for you and be able to identify any changes. If you do find a lump in your breasts, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have breast cancer, but you shouldn’t delay getting it checked. There’s no hard and fast rule for what breast cancer lumps feel like as opposed to benign lumps, so it’s always important to get a professional opinion.
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF), if you’re a woman under 40, breast awareness remains vital for early detection of breast cancer. Women over 40 should be checking their breasts regularly also, as well as attending breast screening appointments.
The NBCF recommends checking your breasts once a month. If you’ve never checked your breasts before, or you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, read their guide to checking for breast cancer symptoms.
Who should have regular breast screening?
All women over 40 have access to a free mammogram through BreastScreen Australia. Breast screening is particularly important as many women show no outwards breast cancer symptoms or signs, until they are diagnosed as a result of a mammogram. A screening mammogram is a low-dose x-ray of your breast tissue, which can detect a cancer as small as a grain of rice. If cancer is detected early, there are more treatment options available and it’s easier to stop it spreading to other areas of the body.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that women had a 42% lower risk of dying if breast cancer was identified in a screening program compared to women with breast cancer who had never been screened. All the data points to breast screening as a worthwhile activity. For just twenty minutes every two years, you could save your own life.
Breast screening: how often?
- All women aged 50 to 74 should have a mammogram screening every two years as this is the most common age to develop breast cancer.
- Women aged between 40 and 49 who have no symptoms can choose to have a free mammogram and women over 75 years should discuss the screening with their doctor.
You can call BreastScreen Australia on 13 20 50 for more information or to book an appointment.
What will it cost me to be screened?
From the age of 40, women can access free mammograms through the national screening program. If you are not eligible for this screening program, but you’re concerned about your breast cancer risk, it’s best to discuss this with your GP. If appropriate, a GP may provide you with a referral to have a mammogram privately.
CBHS members may be able to claim a benefit on their Extras (excluding FlexiSaver) if the test or screening is not already claimable by Medicare.
Where to get breast cancer support
For more information about breast cancer, it’s best to talk to your GP or call the Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and have CBHS health cover, please get in touch to discuss programs and support.
Treatments for breast cancer
Treatments for someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, depend on both the type of cancer and which of the breast cancer stages it has been classified as. The scale goes from stages I to IV. Stage I, Stage IIA and Stage IIB (early) refer to early breast cancer, while Stage IIB (advanced) and beyond are given to advanced cancers.
When breast cancer has spread beyond the breast it is known as metastatic breast cancer.
In the earlier stages, breast-conserving surgery – also called a lumpectomy − might be possible. Surgeons remove any breast cancer lumps and the portion of healthy tissue around them called the surgical margin. A lumpectomy is usually followed by radiotherapy treatment.
Some women, however, will need a mastectomy to contain their cancer – removal of a full breast. Removing both breasts is called a double mastectomy. Mastectomies are also generally paired with radiotherapy treatment.
Chemotherapy might also be an option for some women, and it can help increase their chance of surviving, as well as prevent the cancer growing or spreading to other parts of the body.
Depending on the type of cancer, hormonal therapies (in the form of medication) can play a role for women who have hormone receptors on their cancer cells. These interfere with the female hormones which might be causing cancer to grow.
In metastatic cancer, treatment may be aimed at controlling the growth and spread of the cancer cells, and also curbing symptoms and pain to preserve quality of life for as long as possible.
Your oncologist will discuss your options with you based on your diagnosis. But the general rule is that the earlier the cancer is detected; the more treatment options are available and the better your chances of survival. That’s why breast screening and self-checking is so important.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
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