Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2020

Breast cancer is the number one cancer affecting South African women of all races, with the lifetime risk being 1 in 25 – that’s according to the latest statistics (2016) from the National Cancer Registry. As October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’re taking a closer look at the signs and symptoms, exploring some of the screening methods, and listing lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk.

What should you look out for?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that “the most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass,” and explains that “a painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancer, but breast cancers can be tender, soft, or round. They can even be painful.” They recommend that “any new breast mass, lump or breast change” be checked by an appropriate health care professional.

ACS also lists the following as possible symptoms of breast cancer:

  • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt)
  • Skin dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)
  • Nipple or breast skin that is red, dry, flaking or thickened
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
  • Swollen lymph nodes 

Should you do regular breast self-exams?

According to Mayo Clinic, many medical organisations don’t recommend that women do regular breast self-exams as they “haven’t been shown to be effective in detecting cancer or improving survival for women who have breast cancer.” However, Mayo Clinic goes on to say that “doctors believe there is value in women being familiar with their own breasts, so they understand what’s normal and promptly report changes.”

Breastcancer.org says they still believe that “breast self-examination is a useful and important screening tool, especially when used in combination with regular physical exams by a doctor, mammography, and in some cases ultrasound and/or MRI.”

And the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) states that breast self-exams are “recommended for raising awareness among women at risk rather than as a screening method.” The association advocates that every women do “regular (monthly) breast self-examinations at the same time every month following her menstrual cycle from age 20” and that they “report any changes or concerns to a doctor or professional nurse practitioner without delay.”

How to do a breast self-exam

CANSA offers the following step-by-step instructions for doing a breast self-exam:

1. In the mirror

  • In front of a mirror, check for any changes in the normal look and feel of your breasts, such as dimpling, size difference or nipple discharge. 
  • Inspect four ways: arms at sides, arms overhead, firmly pressing hands on hips, and bending forward.

2. Lying down

  • Lie on your back with a pillow under your right shoulder and your right hand under your head.
  • With the four fingers of your left hand, make small circular motions, following an up and down pattern over the entire breast area, under the arms and up to the shoulder bone, pressing firmly.
  • Repeat using your right hand on your left breast.

3. While bathing

  • With your right arm raised, check your right breast with a soapy left hand and fingers flat using the method described in Step 2. 
  • Repeat on the other side.

What about mammograms?

It’s recommended that South African women start having regular mammograms from age 40 for non-symptomatic breast screening, and CANSA suggests the following schedule based on age:

40–54 years: An annual mammogram
55+ years: A mammogram every two years

They also state that “women who are at risk and those that have had breast health problems in the past should consult their respective health professional to determine a schedule applicable to them.”

6 ways to lower your risk

According to Mayo Clinic, you can take the following steps to reduce your risk of breast cancer:

1. Limit your alcohol intake
2. Don’t smoke
3. Maintain a healthy weight
4. Be physically active
5. Limit the dose and duration of hormone therapy
6. Avoid exposure to radiation and environmental pollution

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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

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