10 signs you may have breast cancer…
…and what you should do about it.
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in South African women of all races, with a lifetime risk of one in eight, according to the 2012 National Cancer Registry. But a diagnosis isn’t necessarily a death sentence, provided it’s done early. ‘When breast cancer is diagnosed while it’s very small, the outcomes are much better than when breast cancer is larger and has spread to regional lymph nodes or distant metastatic sites,’ says Dr Lizanne Langenhoven, a Cape Town oncologist with a special interest in breast disease.
There are some signs that may point to breast cancer:
- There’s a firm or hard lump in your breast or under your arm – you may be able to feel rather than see this, which is why monthly self-examination is important.
- There’s dimpling, thickening or redness of the skin of your breast.
- The nipple has retracted (turned in) or turned to point in a different direction.
- There’s a discharge from your nipple (other than breast milk in mothers).
- There’s a thickening of the skin in the nipple area.
- There’s eczema (a rash) around the nipple.
- Part of or your entire breast is swollen or looks red or inflamed.
- There’s an unusual increase in the size of one breast, one breast has started hanging lower than the other or the nipples are at different levels which is unusual for you.
- The glands under your arm are enlarged or there’s a swelling in your armpit.
- There’s sensitivity of the breast or even pain, sometimes in the armpit.
The earlier, the better
The earlier breast cancer is found, the better the chance of beating it. ‘The benefit of a mammogram is that very small cancers can be seen, even as small as a few millimetres,’ says Dr Langenhoven. ‘The American Cancer Society recommends that women aged between 45 and 55 have a mammogram once a year. After the age of 55, the frequency may be prolonged to two years between mammograms.’
Dr Langenhoven points out that concerns about mammograms causing cancer are unfounded, and that large studies show that, on the contrary, mammography saves lives. ‘Technology keeps the radiation dose delivered during mammography to an absolute minimum, and the benefit far outweighs the risk,’ she says.
Family history matters
‘Although 10% or less of all breast cancer is hereditary, where there’s a strong family history of breast cancer, usually involving two or more first-degree relatives spanning two or more generations, these patients need to be especially vigilant with their mammogram screening,’ says Dr Langenhoven. They should report to a specialist surgeon with an interest in breast health, and genetic testing will be offered where appropriate.
‘My advice is to listen to your body and respect its message,’ says Dr Langenhoven. ‘If you’re concerned or notice a change in your breasts, contact your doctor to discuss your concerns and to have a thorough examination.’