According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer in women of all races, with a lifetime risk of 1 in 35 in South Africa.

Breast cancer is characterised by the growth of a malignant tumour that starts in the cells of the breast. A malignant tumour is a group of cancer cells that metastasise to other areas of the body. The disease occurs almost entirely in women, but men can get it, too.

Although causes of breast cancer causes are not fully understood, there are certain risk factors. These include:

  • Age: it is most common in women over 50 who have been through menopause
  • Family history
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
  • Contraceptive pill
  • Radiation
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Breast density
  • Exposure to the hormone oestrogen

What are its symptoms?

The first noticeable symptom of breast cancer is a lump or an area of thickened tissue in the breast.

Most breast lumps (90 percent) aren’t cancerous, but it’s always best to have them checked by your doctor. Early detection is key when it comes to breast cancer survival rates.

Early breast cancer usually doesn’t show symptoms. But as the tumour grows and moves through stages, it can change how the breast looks or feels.

Common changes include:

  • A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the armpit area
  • Change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling or puckering in the skin of the breast
  • Nipple becomes inverted
  • Abnormal discharge from the nipple
  • Scaly, red, or swollen skin on the breast, nipple, or areola (dark area surrounding the nipple)
  • Breast skin takes on an orange peel look or feel

How is it diagnosed?

Starting at 20, women need to self-exam and have clinical exams (a basic part of a medical check-up). See here for CANSA’s simple steps for a breast examination.

If you find a lump in your breast, or suspect you may have beast cancer, see your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor will examine you and, if necessary, refer you to a breast cancer specialist or clinic.

If you have a family history of breast cancer, speak to your doctor about when you should start having mammograms or ultrasounds. You can also ask about genetic testing, this will help you find out whether you have an abnormal gene that is linked to high breast cancer risk – these abnormal genes are BRCA1, BRCA2 and PALB2. Women who inherit a mutation from any of these genes have a higher-than-average risk of developing both breast and ovarian cancer. Men who inherit a mutation from any of these genes may be at a higher risk of breast and prostate cancer. You can then decide whether you would like to take any preventative measures.

Breast cancer tests include:

  • Mammogram: A special type of X-ray taken to look for abnormal growths or changes in breast tissue
  • Ultrasound scan: Ultrasound images to check whether a breast lump is a cyst or a solid mass
  • A biopsy: a sample of tissue cells is taken from the breast and tested
  • A breast MRI: magnetic resonance imaging
  • Sentinel Node Biopsy: Doctors check lymph nodes under the arm to see if cancer has spread into the lymph system
  • Ductal Lavage: Checks cells from the milk ducts for precancerous cells

What are your treatment options?

If you have breast cancer, you should be assigned a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals to provide care.

The main treatments for breast cancer are:

  • Surgery
  • Radiotherapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Biological therapy (targeted therapy)

You may have one of these treatments, or a combination. The type or combination of treatments you have will depend on how the cancer was diagnosed and the stage it’s at.

Can it be prevented?

As the causes of breast cancer aren’t fully understood, it’s not known if it can be prevented altogether. However, there are lifestyle changes you can take to reduce your breast cancer risk. These include:

  • Avoid excessive alcohol
  • Don’t smoke
  • Exercise regularly
  • Follow a healthy diet
  • Control your weight
  • Limit dose and duration of hormone therapy
  • Avoid exposure to radiation and environmental pollution

Breast cancer awareness is key. If you notice any changes in your breasts, such as a new lump or skin changes, consult your doctor. Also, ask your doctor when to begin mammograms and other screenings.

What to do now
Clicks Clinics conduct breast examinations. To make an appointment at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or visit Clicks Clinics online.

For more info
The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) 

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2015
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